Alaska editorial: Corruption probes of Alaska U.S. delegation an East Coast power play

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2007

It's in some part politics when all members of a state's congressional delegation face possible ethics investigations as the nation prepares to enter an election year.

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Only in Alaska and a couple of other states. Alaska has two senators and a lone representative. While California, New York and Florida, with millions of congressional constituents, boast a stable full of statewide elected officials. It would be difficult, although improbable because of the numbers alone, for those and most other states to be where Alaska is. Its whole delegation might be under scrutiny.

It isn't surprising that two of the three are up for re-election in 2008; the effort by Democrats to unseat Republicans, including in the White House, has begun with a vengeance. All in Alaska's delegation are Republican, and powerful Republicans, especially Sen. Ted Stevens and Congressman Don Young, who have held their offices since 1968 and 1973, respectively.

To unseat them would be a coup for Democrats. Democrats know that and are out to do it. They observed former Sen. Frank Murkowski lose in a re-election bid to extend his term in the Alaska Governor's Mansion, and lose in a Republican primary election to a candidate who flew the banner of ethical behavior for elected officials. The Democrats think the long-serving Alaskans are vulnerable. It was the same banner used by Democrats across the country, which led to Democrats taking control of Congress. It worked for the Democrats, and it worked for Republican Gov. Sarah Palin. It likely wouldn't have worked for a Democrat in Alaska; Alaska's Republicans far outnumber Democrats, and most other voters tend to the conservative side.

The latest shot against the Alaska delegation came last week, into the Sen. Lisa Murkowski camp.

The National Legal and Policy Center, based in Virginia near Washington, D.C., about as far from Alaska as an American can locate, filed a complaint earlier this week with a congressional ethics committee for an investigation into a land deal involving Murkowski and her husband, Verne Martell.

The couple bought a piece of land on the Kenai River for the price of its assessed valuation from a friend who owns property next door. The assessed value was $179,400; it is claimed that the property could have been sold for more than $300,000.

Perhaps it could have. But friends don't jack up prices on friends. And the Murkowskis agreed to pay the amount of the government's assessed value.

Maybe the landowner could have sold it for more. But the landowner makes the decision who to sell to. As long as the price is at least at assessed value and both parties are satisfied, it's a fair trade.

But Murkowski isn't messing around. If the sale creates a perception that raises the public eyebrow, and so far it's mainly the East Coasters looking askance (once again outsiders nosing into Alaska affairs), then Murkowski will repeal the deal. She and her husband are selling the property back to their friend at the price they paid for it.

She says no piece of property is worth compromising the trust of Alaskans.

Murkowski is a smart and honest woman. If there's a problem, she examines it, prepares to address it and solves it. She meets challenges of all sorts while representing and fighting for Alaskans on the national front.

Stevens also has taken the upright approach, seeking input on his financial disclosure forms. Stevens acknowledges that federal investigators asked him to preserve records on a remodel of his Alaska home; an official with an oil field service company, VECO Corp., played a role in that remodel. That official pleaded guilty earlier this year to bribing state legislators - not Alaska congressional leaders.

Congressman Young is under fire because of a $10 million earmark for a highway interchange study to improve access to a Florida university; the university is establishing a transportation study center. Earmarks aren't popular, and Young, who bravely and successfully fought for earmarks to build bridges in Alaska, is a target now. Especially because it's an election year. Young is ready for a fight. Ketchikan appreciates his fighting for funds to build a bridge across Tongass Narrows.

The shots aimed at the delegation appear to be coming from the East Coast. But it will be up to Alaskans to separate out the politics, and remember that no member of our congressional delegation has been charged with ethics violations. It's just scrutiny; it comes with being in public office. The fight for national political power is under way. Alaska and its delegation will play a key part in that from now to Election Day 2008.

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