State lawmakers lift hurdle to kidney donation

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When Alaska state Rep. Richard Foster was diagnosed with a genetic kidney disease, his friends at the state Capitol wanted to give more than flowers.

Chris Miller / The Associated Press
Chris Miller / The Associated Press

At least eight people, including legislators and staff, offered to donate a kidney to the affable, joke-loving father of nine. After two years of testing, a match was finally found among them.

But there was a catch.

The Alaska Legislature had just passed an ethics law that appeared to block legislative staffer Sue Stancliff's generous offer.

The new law had a provision setting a $250 limit on compassionate gifts for lawmakers. While the kidney itself has no monetary value under federal law, the limit wouldn't even cover Stancliff's round-trip plane ticket to a transplant center in Seattle.

"Because Richard's a legislator, it creates that problem," said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who sponsored a bill to lift the cap on such gifts. "When you live in a fishbowl, you have to think about those things."

The provision became law last year as part of a 43-page ethics bill. The sweeping legislation was an effort to address the cloud over Alaska's politicians since a federal corruption probe began that has resulted in convictions of three former lawmakers. The investigation is ongoing.

Among other things, the bill tightened the rules on gifts lawmakers could receive and carved out an exemption for compassionate gifts that included the monetary limit.

When lawmakers recently learned that it could pose a problem for their ailing colleague, they quickly set to work on a bill to lift the limit, though compassionate gifts still must be reported and approved.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and is expected to be signed by Gov. Sarah Palin soon.

Yet the small flurry has gone largely unnoticed by the man at its center who has more than a hitch in the law to worry about.

The 61-year old Democrat from Nome suffered a mild stroke last month and has been in rehabilitation in Seattle. He sounded surprised at all the fuss.

"It's pretty unusual for them to support anything unanimously, even Mother's Day," Foster said with a laugh.

Though he is unable to walk unassisted, the stroke does not appear to have affected his cognitive abilities, said his wife Catherine, who told him he seemed "to have it all upstairs."

"Well, it's more than I had before," Foster quipped.

Stancliff, who used to work for Foster and now considers him a personal friend, said he is able to brighten even the most dour committee hearing with a funny joke or action.

"He just illuminates this building with his presence because he has such a big heart," she said.

Stancliff appeared unfazed at the possible legal hitch in her plans. She went through a battery of medical tests that also included emotional counseling so doctors could be sure that she was mentally prepared.

She is, said Stancliff, who added her family's support has helped.

"Our faith is very strong, and we believe this is what I am supposed to be doing," Stancliff said.

The kidney transplant was scheduled for last December but was delayed so that it wouldn't conflict with the legislative session. Stancliff is hoping that Foster will be well enough by April.

"It really gives hope to people in the district and friends and family that if he gets strong enough, we've got one," she said.

It's not the first time friends have rallied for the senior member of the House of Representatives during a time of need. In 1991, his constituents threw a fundraiser for him to help fight federal firearms charges.

A Vietnam veteran and former Army captain, Foster attracted the attention of federal agents when he asked a Juneau machinist to craft some submachine gun parts.

But a sympathetic Nome jury acquitted Foster, to the applause of the gallery.

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