A high-ranking Sealaska official is defending the Native corporation's chairman against ethics allegations that he attempted to bully a city council into supporting land transfer legislation.
Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, was accused by a Craig City Council member in an Anchorage Daily News story on Sunday of threatening to use his position as a legislator to advance the interests of the Native corporation that he heads.
According to the state's largest newspaper, Kookesh visited the Prince of Wales Island community earlier this month, and urged the city not to stand in the way of Sealaska's goal of acquiring land near Craig as part of its Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act entitlements.
Sealaska Corp. Chief Executive officer Chris McNeil Jr. on Tuesday issued a statement calling Kookesh's comments "an incongruous choice of words," but said they should not distract from the underlying issue.
ANCSA was signed into law in 1971, but Sealaska has yet to receive all the land it was pledged. Some Prince of Wales Island residents have opposed land transfers to Sealaska, fearing the loss of access to what are now public lands.
McNeil's statement said the land transfer legislation would provide an economic boost to some economically distressed Southeast communities.
"Chair Kookesh and the Sealaska board are dedicated advocates of Sealaska's lands legislation because they know the economic condition of our villages is critical," McNeil said.
Kookesh was unavailable for comment. The legislative ethics process, which the Daily News said is thought to have begun, operates largely in secret.
Kookesh was accused of threatening to use his position as a legislator to block appropriations for Craig if it continued to oppose the Sealaska lands bill. His comments were recorded during a Jan. 7 meeting.
"I'm not a vindictive person," Kookesh told the Craig City Council, but then went on to comment about how Craig would need his help to gain capital projects and how he would be in a position to decide on them.
Kookesh is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a member of the Senate Working Group, the bipartisan coalition that controls the Senate. He also noted that another Sealaska board member, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, sits in positions of power in the House of Representatives.
McNeil said that Kookesh spoke in an "unguarded" moment, but was speaking from years of frustration in trying to accomplish the goals of ANCSA.
Kookesh's statements, he said, have focused media attention away from the need for the legislation.
"In this time of unprecedented need in our region and state, Chair Kookesh's knowledge, commitment and passion are particularly important as our communities struggle to hold on to jobs, ways of life, and the economic future of Southeast Alaska," he said.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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