Alaska editorial: Kenai earmarks show blatantly unhealthy political connections

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2007

The details of the 2004 federal appropriations for conserving the Kenai and Russian rivers, steered to the state via developer Bob Penney, blatantly show how earmarking can get carried too far.

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Earmarks are appropriations set aside by a member of Congress for a specific group or project. Often, that's a local or state government, but sometimes it's a nonprofit group.

Alaska benefited mightily through years of earmarks by our congressional delegation at the height of its power, especially Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Billions of dollars came our way.

The process is now highly controversial, made infamous partly because of hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for what became known as Alaska's two "bridges to nowhere."

The 2004 appropriations of $2 million for the Kenai River and $1 million for the Russian River are tiny in comparison. But the facts about them lay bare how government business can become intermingled too closely with friendship and a private business relationship.

When state officials sent an e-mail to Stevens, then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to ask what the Kenai and Russian River appropriations were for, they got a reply from Stevens' office that said, "The $2 million for the Kenai River; and the $1 million for the Russian River go to Bob Penney."

The phone number of Penco, an Anchorage company founded by Penney, was attached.

Penney is a sportfishing advocate and co-founder of the nonprofit Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

And he is a personal friend and former business partner of Stevens.

Penney and Stevens have both been involved for years in the Kenai River Classic, which brings up other members of Congress, high-level administration officials, business leaders and others for a king salmon tournament that raises money for fish habitat.

As abuses go, the Kenai Classic is even worse than this earmark - it's straight selling of access to top echelons of government, even if it's for a popular, nonprofit cause.

The 2004 federal appropriations were well intended, clearly meant to be spent on the rivers, and not to benefit Penney personally.

But why let Penney be the spending czar?

The fact that Stevens' office let a friend and business partner have that kind of say over spending federal taxpayers' money is just wrong.

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