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North Slope Borough funded basketball camp for mayor's grandkids, records show

The North Slope Borough paid $8,400 to fly five of Mayor Charlotte Brower's grandchildren from Barrow to a basketball camp in California last August, according to borough documents.

The documents, contained in a response to an Alaska Dispatch News records request, show Brower's signature approving the use of borough funds for three of her grandchildren's fees and flights for the trip to the camp in Santa Barbara.

The records also detail tens of thousands of dollars of cakes and crafts purchased from two of Brower's daughters by her office and other borough departments over the last several years.

The borough paid more than $500 apiece for some of the cakes. They were consumed at borough holiday celebrations, employee retirement parties, and even Brower's own birthday, the documents said.

A law firm appointed by the borough Assembly earlier this month is investigating the payments, at Brower's request. She has said she didn't approve or promote any borough purchases from her family members.

But one of the documents provided by the borough has a handwritten notation saying, "7-11-14 Approved Charlotte Brower" at the bottom of the letter requesting help for the basketball camp.

The five-day camp is called "Michael Jordan Flight School" and bills itself as featuring instruction from "the greatest basketball player of all time." In her July 10, 2014, letter asking Brower for the money, Brower's adult daughter, Mary Jo Olemaun, described the camp as a "once in a lifetime event" for her three children and the two children of her sister, Crystal Tula'i -- Brower's grandchildren. The letter said that Tula'i would be escorting the children.

The North Slope Borough wrote a $7,405 check to Olemaun, the records show.

The borough, at the request of the mayor's office, paid another $1,000 to cover partial costs for Tula'i's two children.

Brower didn't respond to an interview request or to written questions Thursday. A spokeswoman sent a prepared statement.

"I made the request for the Assembly to hire independent counsel to review the borough's internal policies in order to maintain the public's confidence and trust," the statement quoted Brower as saying. "Until the investigation is complete, it needs to be allowed to run its course without prejudice or comment on any of the circumstances under review."

Brower was first elected mayor of the 9,700-person borough in 2011. Her husband, Eugene Brower, had the same job in the 1980s before pleading guilty to tax evasion in a huge corruption scandal that saw two of his key advisers imprisoned.

The borough Assembly voted unanimously last week to authorize the investigation by the law firm, Perkins Coie. An accompanying resolution, signed by Brower, says the firm will examine the borough's purchasing policies and possible violations of its ethics code.

The ethics code bars borough employees from using information "peculiarly within the public official's knowledge or purview concerning the property, government or affairs of the borough to advance the personal interest of the public official or immediate family members."

It was not immediately clear when the results of the investigation would be made public. The borough clerk and her deputy didn't respond to phone calls or questions Thursday, nor did they respond to a request to connect a reporter to Assembly members. A representative in Perkins Coie's Anchorage office also did not respond to a phone message.

Brower requested the investigation after the borough received a records request from another law firm, Holland and Knight, about borough payments to her relatives.

In a July 7 memorandum to the Assembly, Brower said her staff members had been authorizing purchases of goods from her family members "without my knowledge or approval" under a policy that allowed no-bid payments for goods or services that cost less than $10,000.

After she learned of the payments in February, Brower said, she changed purchasing policy to require three informal bids before the borough could buy goods or services from employees or their families.

Her memo did not mention the "donations" for Brower's grandchildren, as they were described in borough documents.

In addition to those payments, the records show that Brower's office and other borough departments frequently bought cakes from Tula'i for functions and celebrations dating back to 2011.

There were other purchases the next year, like $1,175 for a pair of cakes -- one white cake with fresh fruit and another chocolate-yellow cake with "premium frosting" -- for an employee's retirement party.

Other payments were as large as $18,844. That one paid for six separate invoices from Tula'i dated Nov. 24, 2014, for cakes and pies for the borough's "Thanksgiving feast," according to the documents.

And last August, the mayor's office paid Tula'i $40,880 to cater a "community wide feed" and ceremony with then-Gov. Sean Parnell, the records said.

The payment orders for Tula'i aren't signed by Brower herself. But one, in 2012, was for a "mayor's birthday" cake.

Another payment, for $7,254 in cakes and pies and $100 for delivery, came after Tula'i offered her services in a letter sent directly to the mayor in 2011.

Tula'i's invoices didn't specify the size of all of the cakes, though it did for some of them. One 11-inch by 15-inch "chocolate premium" cake was priced at $97.91 in a 2011 invoice, with an extra $30 for a rush order and $25 for delivery.

Larger cakes made the same year, like a 24-by-24 inch strawberry kiwi cake, cost as much as $585.

The prices for the smaller cakes appear to be in line with other bakers. Anita Algiene, the owner of Anchorage's Midnight Sun Cakery, said she sells two versions of an 11-by-15 inch cake, one of which serves 72 people and costs $150, and another that serves 36 people and costs $90.

An employee at AC Value Center in Barrow, said the store sells a sheet cake for $85 with "sugar topping" that typically serves at least 75 people.

As for the 24-by-24 inch cakes, Algiene said those were so large that it was difficult to determine whether the prices paid by the borough were fair.

"I mean, that's really huge," she said. "I can't fit that in my oven."

Brower's office also spent at least $25,000 since September to buy crafts from Olemaun, the borough records show.

One "Eskimo fur doll" cost $5,000; it's not clear from the documents how it was used.

Another $7,000 paid for other crafts, including polar bear skin gloves and seal skin hats, described on invoices as being Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission door prizes.

Brower's office also paid Olemaun $1,900 for a hat and purse described on another invoice as a gift for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

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