Politics

US Senate candidate under investigation for improperly receiving resident sportfish license

Alaska Wildlife Troopers are investigating whether U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka illegally obtained a resident sportfishing license for a Kenai River sportfishing event in 2019.

Records indicate Tshibaka, a leading challenger to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, received a resident sportfishing license despite failing to meet the requirements.

Knowingly violating the law on fishing licenses is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $300. A senior adviser to Tshibaka’s campaign said he believes she did not intend to break the law.

Troopers regularly cite fishermen for illegally buying a resident-only permit, and other political figures have run afoul of the residency requirement.

“The Alaska Wildlife Troopers are aware of the recent media reports regarding Mrs. Tshibaka and are looking into them. No criminal charges or citations have been issued at this time,” said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

Tshibaka announced her run for U.S. Senate in March and on July 15 released a fishing-themed video ad filmed at a setnet site owned by former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman. The video raised questions about Tshibaka’s fishing history, including whether she has a commercial license.

Public records do not show a commercial license but do show Tshibaka obtained a resident sportfishing permit in August 2019, eight months after a state-paid move brought her to work as the leader of the Alaska Department of Administration.

To qualify for a resident fishing license, someone must have lived in the state for “12 consecutive months immediately preceding (the) application for a license.” There is an exception for someone who temporarily leaves the state, but that exemption ends when that person establishes residency in another state. Tshibaka was a registered Maryland voter and owned a home there until hired by the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Copies of the license application show Tshibaka listed her Alaska residency time as 15 years and 8 months. Born and raised in Anchorage, Tshibaka left Alaska at age 15 but returned in January 2019.

“Our records indicate and our APOC records also indicate that yes, Kelly Tshibaka did attend the 2019 Kenai River Classic,” said Ben Mohr, director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which conducts an annual fundraiser and advocacy event each year.

“She was issued a sportfishing license at that event,” Mohr said.

The license application contains contradictory information: It shows a hole punch and a written code indicating that it’s an application for a resident-only license, but it also has a handwritten start and end date used only when applying for a temporary nonresident license.

“The form is filled in for a license that expires after one day, going from August 22nd to the 23rd, which is only available to non-residents. This shows clear intent to purchase a non-resident license, not a resident license,” said Tim Murtaugh, a senior adviser to the Tshibaka campaign.

The state recorded it as a resident license application and awarded one to her.

The political website Alaska Landmine was first to obtain the license records and accused Tshibaka of breaking the law.

The license application was co-signed by a person working for the association, but Mohr said the association acted only as a vendor for the license. The state’s manual for vendors emphasizes that vendors “should not challenge possible false statements made by the licensee” and should refer questions to the Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement.

“Kelly attended the 2019 Kenai River Classic in her capacity as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration,” Murtaugh said. “Her confirmation hearings had been very public and it was well known that she had recently returned to the state to serve in the governor’s cabinet. The event organizers asked if she had a current fishing license, and when she said she didn’t, they issued her one. Lisa Murkowski’s allies are clearly worried about Kelly, if they are willing to attack her on this.”

Jeff Landfield, owner and operator of the Alaska Landmine, said his accusations weren’t the result of prodding by people aligned with Murkowski. After watching the July 15 video, he just wanted to see if she had a commercial fishing crew license. The sportfishing license issue is a “self-inflicted error,” he said.

In the video, Tshibaka is seen removing fish from a net and placing them in a brailer bag that is then transferred to another boat. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the video was staged or involved real fishing. The campaign is declining to answer questions on that, Murtaugh said. Wildlife troopers are investigating.

In 2015, residency issues caused Roland Maw, a pick for the Alaska Board of Fisheries, to withdraw his name from consideration. Maw was fined and charged with seven misdemeanors in Montana after claiming resident hunting and fishing licenses in that state. In Alaska, Maw was charged with Permanent Fund dividend fraud.

Three years before that, a selectee for the International Pacific Halibut Commission also ran into residency issues. And in 2010, under similar circumstances, Murkowski challenger Joe Miller was accused of improperly obtaining a license during the time he attended college Outside.

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