Alaska News

Alaska governor to return seal-skin vest paid for with North Slope Borough money

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will return bearded sealskin vests they were given by an organization affiliated with the North Slope Borough following the disclosure that the borough bought them from a daughter of the mayor.

The office of Mayor Charlotte Brower in February paid $7,000 to Mary Jo Olemaun, one of Brower's daughters, for the pair of vests.

The payments were detailed in a response to an Alaska Dispatch News records request, which followed a vote by the borough Assembly this month to appoint a law firm to investigate borough purchasing policies and potential violations of its ethics code, at Brower's request.

Brower said in a memorandum to the Assembly dated July 7 that her staff members had authorized purchases of goods and services from members of her family without her approval or knowledge.

But other documents showed a handwritten "approved" notation, with Brower's name, on a request ultimately granted by the borough for $7,405 to send three of her grandchildren to basketball camp in California.

The documents also showed that the North Slope Borough spent thousands of dollars to buy gifts from Olemaun for high-profile officials, including Walker, Mallott, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Brower has said her office authorized payments to her family members under a borough policy that allowed no-bid purchases of goods or services for less than $10,000. Brower has since changed the policy.


Records show Brower's office paid Olemaun $3,500 apiece on Feb. 18 for two sealskin vests for Walker and Mallott as well as $500 for an atiqluk, or kuspuk, for Jewell -- plus $100 for delivery.

Walker and Mallott each received bearded seal vests on Feb. 16 at an Alaska Federation of Natives conference in the Northwest Alaska community of Kotzebue, Walker's spokeswoman, Katie Marquette, said in an email Friday.

They were valued at $1,750 each and given on behalf of the whaling captains association from the 4,400-person city of Barrow, Marquette said. That organization shares a mailing address with the North Slope Borough.

"In light of the new information released by the North Slope Borough, these gifts are being returned to ensure that the public's trust is being upheld," Marquette said.

Marquette said the vests received by Walker and Mallott matched a photograph included in the borough records. A spokeswoman for Brower, Kristine Hilderbrand, couldn't immediately say how the vests were transferred from the borough to the association, though she emailed a prepared statement.

"Sealskin vests are traditional gifts of honor for distinguished elders," the statement said. "The purchase of the vests presented to the governor and lieutenant governor did not violate the borough's procurement policy."

There's no cap on the value of gifts that can be received by public officials in Alaska, said Paul Dauphinais, the executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, though gifts valued at $250 or greater must be recorded on an annual disclosure. Marquette, in her email, provided two disclosure forms -- one for Walker and one for Mallott -- that recorded the vests earlier this year.

A spokeswoman for Jewell, Emily Beyer, said in an email late Friday that all gifts received by the secretary are processed and logged. But she added that she could not confirm until early next week whether Jewell had received the kuspuk purchased by the borough.

A spokesman for Murkowski, Matthew Felling, confirmed that the senator's office received a purse and hat from the North Slope Borough, which were purchased from Olemaun for $1,900, according to borough records.

Correction: This story originally said Walker and Mallott had already returned the vests -- the vests have yet to be returned.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at