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Rural Alaska legislator billed state more than $20,000 to ship appliances, piano

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 22, 2017

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, works during Senate Finance Committee meeting last week. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

State Sen. Donny Olson billed the state more than $20,000 over two years to ship appliances and a shop and studio's worth of equipment from his Juneau residence to his home in Golovin, near Nome.

Among the 7,381 pounds of stuff that went from Juneau to Golovin in 2015 and 2016, but not the other way around: a washer and a dryer, a piano, four air compressors, building supplies, enlarger parts, a band saw, a basketball backboard, lawn chairs, four weight benches, three fans and three vacuums, according to Olson's shipping inventories.

"It is egregious to bill the Legislative Affairs Agency for three air compressors in one year," wrote Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency in a Nov. 30 letter to Olson. "You also stated the wood was for your woodworking hobby. Your hobby is not a legitimate business purpose.

Varni accused him of violating the Legislature's moving policy, though she also acknowledged that it's more expensive to move a big family between Juneau and Golovin.

Varni's letter, the shipping inventories and Olson's expense claims were provided to Alaska Dispatch News under a public records request. The records show that the state declined to pay more than $4,000 of Olson's moving expenses. They also show that his bills led the House-Senate Legislative Council, the bipartisan committee that takes care of legislative business, to tighten its moving policy in December.

Olson, a 16-year veteran of the Senate, is the Democratic minority member on the finance committee, though he caucused with the Republican majority last year.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, discusses the state-paid travel and moving expenses that he incurred over the past two years. Olson, pictured in his Capitol office with his wife, Willow, said the expenses — which included costs for shipping a piano, air compressors, and a band saw home from Juneau — complied with legislative policy, especially given the distance to his village outside of Nome. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

In a brief interview this week in his Juneau office, crammed with furniture, a TV and mounted reindeer antlers, Olson insisted he's done nothing wrong.

"I come with the biggest family," Olson said, "and I come the furthest."

Olson brings four children to Juneau each year, and he's accompanied by his wife, Willow.

With Willow seated beside him, Olson said he's complied with the legislative policy that allows lawmakers to ship 10,000 pounds of "household goods," including appliances — though the policy has since been changed to require the appliances be small.

Olson also said last year's construction on the Capitol forced him to move all of his things out of his office. The contents had to be shipped home, he added, since his storage unit, paid by the state when the Legislature isn't in session, was already full.

Between 2011 and 2015, Olson, a doctor and pilot, was the Legislature's top spender on moving each year except 2012, when his expenses were second to another rural legislator, Reggie Joule, a Kotzebue Democrat who retired that year.

In the past, Olson's colleagues have defended his relocation costs — $46,000 in total in 2015, with the 2016 figures not yet available — by citing his big family and the 1,000 miles separating Golovin from Juneau.

Moving between Juneau and Golovin is a complex undertaking, Olson said, involving commercial flights and a Bush plane for the last leg. His 150-person coastal village is off the road system.

The moving company used by the Legislature, AAA Moving and Storage, built special air crates for the 2015 flight to Golovin, and the contents also traveled on roads and by barge, according to a description in Olson's public moving records.

But no other lawmaker's moving expenses exceeded $10,000 in 2015. And now the Legislative Affairs Agency is reviewing Olson's bills from the last two years, Varni said.

In her memo, Varni said the manifests for Olson's last two years include wood, a saw horse, the four air compressors, ladders, a weed whacker and photographic equipment. The state did not appear to have shipped any items to Juneau — just back to Golovin, Varni added.

And they included a washer and dryer even though Olson lived in apartments that provided those appliances, Varni's memo said.

Varni said in an interview that Olson may be asked to pay back more money, based on the outcome of her agency's review of his bills.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, on the steps of the state Capitol last week, (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

In a December meeting, the Legislative Council voted to revise lawmakers' moving policy to allow only "small" appliances to be moved, a category that would include a toaster or food processor but not a washing machine.

Olson's expenses weren't specifically discussed, though Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, noted that even after the changes, the moving policy allows lawmakers to bill the state for shipping as many as three pets.

"You want to normalize your life as much as possible when you're bringing a family," Micciche said. "But I'm not sure that the state should be on the hook for some of the costs that remain in the policy even if we make these changes."

Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, wouldn't agree to be interviewed about Olson's expenses but said in a prepared statement: "We certainly understand that rural legislators have higher moving costs. However, Sen. Olson needs to work with the responsible agency to keep expenses within sensible limits.

"That being said, the Senate president has no direct involvement in these matters," Kelly's statement added.

Olson and his wife offered explanations for several of the items listed on the inventories. They said none of the shipped items were brought to Golovin to sell there, which would violate the Legislature's moving policy.

The air compressors? Olson said he used them to switch out his winter tires, which he does himself. They're also used to inflate air mattresses used by their children.

They needed the washer and dryer, said Willow Olson, because the appliances provided at their Juneau apartments require leaving the building and navigating outdoor stairs and a steep, icy hill — a challenge for a family with four children.

Donny Olson said three photographic enlargers shipped home in 2015 were for woodworking projects, to help etch his kids' faces into wooden cutting boards that he makes.

The lathe and other tools were also used for woodworking, Olson said.

"The pressure cooker is in here," said Olson, referring to the Capitol. "At the end of the day, you want to go out and do something that's fun. And I want to teach my kids."

Last year's inventory included "building supplies," even though the Legislature's moving policy forbids shipments of "building materials." But Olson, who appears to have signed the inventory, said there were no building materials in the shipment, and his wife said the items could have been his woodworking tools.

"We're not building a house, or something like that," said Willow Olson.

If the Legislative Council decides the family violated the moving policy, "we will do whatever we can to make that right," she said. But, she added: "We don't feel like we're in violation at this point."

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