The FBI has interviewed or sought to interview at least 11 Alaska state legislators this year, asking in at least some of the interviews whether any lawmakers received a financial benefit in exchange for their vote on the Permanent Fund dividend.
“I was asked if I was aware of other legislators who had been asked to vote a certain way regarding the Permanent Fund dividend in exchange for something of value,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
He said on Tuesday that he isn’t aware of anyone who has done so.
Not all interviewed lawmakers would say what they were asked about, and it isn’t clear what the FBI is searching for. An interview may not mean a legislator is under investigation — several lawmakers said the FBI told them during the interviews that they were not personally under investigation.
A spokeswoman for the FBI in Anchorage declined to discuss the interviews, and many lawmakers would not speak on the record about them. The legislators said they worry about inadvertently interfering with a federal investigation.
“Combating public corruption is a top priority for the FBI, and we take all allegations of this nature seriously; however, as a matter of longstanding practice, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations, nor do we release information pertaining to interviews,” said Chloe Martin, public affairs officer for the FBI’s Anchorage field office.
At least three Senate Republicans were interviewed in late spring or early summer, state senators told the Daily News. The FBI has scheduled more interviews this month, including some with Democrats and members of the House, legislators said.
That second round of interviews comes after Senate Republicans discussed the early talks in a mid-November, closed-door meeting. The Alaska Landmine political blog first published a post with details of that discussion.
“I know at least a couple members who have been contacted in the House under the auspices of just doing general research,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said in a phone interview.
“I’m aware of the FBI doing their job and doing some due diligence to find out if there’s anything they need to be concerned about,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who was interviewed by the FBI twice earlier this year.
Thirty-five lawmakers responded to a questionnaire sent by the ADN to all 59 members of the 31st Legislature. (Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, was killed in a plane crash this summer.)
The questionnaire included five questions that asked whether they had spoken to the FBI this year and, if so, about what topic.
Ten lawmakers said yes, they have been contacted by the FBI. Twenty-two said no, and three said they received the questionnaire but were declining to answer.
Three of the legislators who didn’t respond said in separate interviews last week that they had not been contacted.
“There is nothing that would legally prohibit a legislator from publicly disclosing that they were interviewed by the FBI,” said Megan Edge of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, citing legal advice from the ACLU’s attorneys.
Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, said she was interviewed last week by the FBI and had a “general conversation as to the operations of the Legislature.”
She said she was not asked to participate in a criminal investigation and was told that she is not a “person of interest.”
Uncertainty over the motive for the interviews is roiling lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, where Republicans are attempting to form a majority government.
Micciche kept his interviews to himself through the summer and declined in an interview to say what they were about.
On Nov. 13, Senate Republicans met for the first time since the general election and were attempting to iron out differences that have divided them for the past several years. Two of the people in the room were senators-elect who won their races in last month’s election and weren’t in office when the first round of interviews happened. Other senators said they had heard rumors.
Micciche said he decided to bring up the topic to clear the air.
“Folks have been talking about a possible investigation, and I wanted to clear the air in a new caucus that we intend to build on transparency, trust and finding common ground on what’s best for Alaskans,” Micciche said.
At the time, the Republicans agreed to not share what they discussed, but after the Landmine published its account, some senators described contentious arguments about who was to blame for bringing the FBI’s attention to the Senate.
Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, has been vocal on talk radio and social media about his belief that the “binding caucus rule” used to organize the Senate is illegal and corrupt.
In June, the Alaska Department of Law published a memo saying it is not.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said she was contacted early this month and specifically asked the FBI whether they were investigating the binding caucus rule. She has criticized it as well.
“I did ask them if this had anything to do with the binding caucus rule and got a flat no,” Hughes said. “He said flat out, ‘No, it has nothing to do with that.’ ”
Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, was also among those interviewed by the FBI in the second round of questioning. He said he hasn’t been asked about any criminal investigation and doesn’t think there is one.
Stevens was a member of the Legislature during the VECO scandal, which saw a half-dozen legislators arrested and convicted in the mid-2000s. Lobbyists and corporate executives were also put on trial. Stevens himself later received a letter informing him that his phone had been bugged by the FBI.
He said these interviews don’t feel like the investigation the FBI did during that scandal.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, received an interview request and was told by the FBI that he isn’t being investigated. He also was in the Legislature during the VECO scandal and out of an abundance of caution, he is contacting the FBI through an attorney.
Every lawmaker who responded to the Daily News’ questionnaire or talked about the interviews said they do not believe anyone in the Legislature has committed a crime.
“Looking around at the 20 members of the Senate … I certainly don’t visualize someone in a pay-to-play scheme or taking part in something illegal,” Micciche said.
“VECO involved major corruption, and this just doesn’t feel like it’s related to a VECO,” Edgmon said.