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Rep. Tammie Wilson pushed state grant that benefited former staffer

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 2, 2015

State Rep. Tammie Wilson, who is running for mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, has long opposed the way the borough operates programs to fight air pollution.

So much that she inserted $1.3 million into the state budget in 2011-2012 to run a competing anti-pollution venture apart from the borough. The idea was to place experimental devices on 25 outdoor wood boilers, conduct research and set up a "heating appliance upgrade and replacement program." The experimental devices did not work as planned.

It's not clear how much of the money was spent on how many homes and businesses by the private company hired to manage the project. That company was owned by a former campaign aide and former member of Wilson's staff who was working for her at the time the first grant won state approval. About $1 million flowed through his company over two years, according to IRS reports.

Like countless other projects inserted into the capital budget over the last 35 years, Wilson's grants received no critical review by other legislators or the executive branch. The legislative habit has long been to avoid asking serious questions about the pet projects other members want, lest lawmakers raise pointed questions in return about projects in the towns the would-be critics represent.

Lawmakers are accustomed to sprinkling cash on groups and causes they favor, often with little public review. In practical terms, a single legislator has this exclusive power because of the absence of oversight, sometimes with bad results. That is how the Anchorage tennis court fiasco took shape.

We can only hope the collapse in oil prices will lead to a new attitude in Juneau in which every expenditure will be defended, justified and questioned in public.

The way to maximize accountability over the $1.3 million Wilson put in the budget would have been to direct it to the borough, where there are established rules, a review process and elected officials who can be held accountable.

But Wilson earmarked it for a brand-new nonprofit entity called the Alaska Resource Agency that didn't have the same restrictions. There was next to no oversight of the grant money and no clear final report demonstrating what the state received for its investment.

To manage Wilson's project, the Alaska Resource Agency, headed by former state House candidate Ward Sattler, contracted with North Star Development, a Missouri company owned by former Wilson campaign aide and staff member Rick VanderKolk.

I bring this up now because the IRS 990 forms filed by the Alaska Resource Agency were brought to my attention by activists who are opponents of Wilson's mayoral campaign. The resource agency paid $422,000 in 2011 and $580,000 in 2012 to VanderKolk's company for various services.

Sattler said, "There must be an election nearing" and he referred to previous exchanges I've had with him about this going back to when I worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and questioned the lack of accountability and responsibility.

Asked about this situation, Wilson said Friday the grants went to the agency created by Sattler in 2011 and "you need to contact Alaska Resource Agency regarding expenditures for the grant."

I also asked when she knew that VanderKolk became the beneficiary of the grants. "This is the first time I have heard such allegations," she said.

These are not allegations. These are items listed on federal tax forms. VanderKolk's association with Wilson goes back to at least 2008. And, according to documents filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, as recently as 2014, another company owned by VanderKolk, Frontiers LC of Mansfield, Missouri, did work for her on "campaign literature and direct mail" and ad design.

Sattler said VanderKolk was not a legislative employee at the time he received a contract. He defended the decision and said VanderKolk did good work.

"It seems every staffer I've ever met moves on, after employment, to work in areas of prior interest and expertise. That is the case here. Mr. VanderKolk left a secure position and then sought work in an area that fit his expertise and the need at the time," said Sattler.

He said about 10 to 20 percent of the amount spent with VanderKolk's company might have been profit, with the rest going to equipment, emission control technology, installation of new wood stoves and "many other functions." I could not reach VanderKolk for comment.

Sattler did not say how much time elapsed in 2011 between when VanderKolk left state employment and was named the general contractor.

A 2012 audit conducted on the grants by Sramek Hightower reported no major problems with the reports by the Alaska Resource Agency. But that report looked at the expenditure with an exceptionally narrow focus, avoiding the matter of benefits gained for dollars spent.

The audit does not mention VanderKolk's company, but simply lists expenses for project management, materials, equipment, etc.

What's clear at this point is there should have been complete disclosure about how the money was spent by the Alaska Resource Agency and where. A spokesman for the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development said Friday he could not find a contract between the resource agency and VanderKolk's company.

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