Legislature: Kookesh violated ethics rules

Ethics committee says Angoon senator used 'a poor choice of words'

Posted: Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A legislative review has found Sen. Albert Kookesh to be in violation of state ethics policies following allegations that he used political influence to keep a city council from opposing a lands bill pushed by the Native corporation he's employed by.

Kookesh, D-Angoon, said he accepted the finding, and that while his words before the Craig City Council in January could have implied a threat, he did not mean it to be one.

"Anybody who knows me and worked with me over the years knows I'm not a threatening person," he said Tuesday. "I've worked my whole life to develop a reputation as somebody who works with everybody."

The Ethics Committee agreed with Kookesh that he had not made a direct threat to the city, but instead inappropriately implied that he would use his legislative power to withhold funding from the city, calling his comments "a poor choice of worlds."

Kookesh is chairman of Sealaska Corp., the regional native corporation for Southeast Alaska. He told the Craig City Council that he had influence in the Legislature on items important to the Prince of Wales Island city, and linked that issue to the city's action on a lands bill important to Sealaska.

The Select Committee on Legislative Ethics found Kookesh's actions were in violation of ethics rules and recommended corrective action. A similar complaint about earlier comments made to the Sitka Assembly was dismissed.

Kookesh will be required to write a letter to the Craig City Council publicly apologizing for his actions. That must be done or the decision appealed within 20 days.

Kookesh said he would not appeal and would comply with the corrective action.

"Absolutely, I was going to do that anyway," he said.

The Legislature requires that complaints about its members be kept secret while its investigation is ongoing. The ruling issued Tuesday said Kookesh cooperated with the ethics inquiry, but does offer a few hints about Kookesh's defense.

In the instructions about the letter of apology, the committee said that Kookesh must "stay on point and not debate whether or not he agrees with this finding nor how the public or media may have misconstrued his words."

"It is important that Senator Kookesh realize that his words at the Craig City Council meeting resulted in a widely held public perception that he violated the Ethics law and that the Ethics Committee has found that he did indeed violate the statute."

Kookesh said he had not expected to see that wording in the ethics ruling.

"I was a little bit surprised at that in the letter afterward," he said. "I certainly don't intend to do that when I write the letter."

Kookesh's letter to the council must also be sent to all members of the Legislature, news media in Kookesh's Senate district and others requesting a copy.

The issue at the heart of the dispute involves an attempt by Sealaska Corp. to acquire lands from the federal government under U.S. Senate Bill 881.

On Jan. 7, Kookesh visited the community on behalf of Sealaska, and linked his ability to block Craig's capital funding requests if the city opposed the lands bill at the January meeting.

"I see you're going to have your 2020 capital project on the table here tonight. And who's it going to go to? It's going to go to me," Kookesh said during the meeting in Craig.

Kookesh also noted that fellow Sealaska board member Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, would also play a role in the capital budget.

Thomas, who sits on the powerful House Finance Committee, did not return a call Tuesday.

After hearing from Kookesh, the Craig City Council did not pass a resolution opposing the bill. It later sent a letter addressing some concerns.

The Ethics Committee said that it "found no evidence that Kookesh actually gained any advantage from his statements."

The legislative ethics process requires secrecy from all participants, which meant Kookesh was unable to discuss the situation until the Legislature's review was complete.

"The hardest part about this whole things, my family had to suffer along with me and I couldn't say anything because of the ethics rules," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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