AP: Documents show feds investigated Hickel

Posted: Friday, October 08, 2010

JUNEAU - Walter Hickel was investigated by federal authorities for fraud for having a National Guard plane ferry personal belongings to Alaska from Washington, D.C., after President Richard Nixon fired him as U.S. Interior secretary.

Nothing came of the investigation, which was disclosed within 362 pages of documents released this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under a Freedom of Information request by The Associated Press. The AP made its records request following Hickel's death, at age 90, in May.

Virtually nothing in Hickel's FBI file relates to his firing or turbulent relationship with Nixon. Instead, it mostly covers his time through the confirmation hearings, background information, interviews with people who knew him and the investigation including the National Guard plane.

The FBI files do show how controversial a figure Hickel was. Interviews and a security check, performed as part of Hickel's appointment to the post, described him as being of strong character, egotistical, stubborn, loyal, interested in doing what was best for Alaska. Sometimes, even interviews with his supporters used a combination of those terms.

Among the documents released was a January 1969 memo noting a Nixon aide mentioning "in passing" to an FBI agent administration concerns among some of Nixon's staff about off-cuff remarks made by some of those picked for Cabinet appointments. One of the two areas of particular concern, it said: comments that Hickel, then Alaska's governor, had made about conservation. It wasn't more specific. The aide's name was redacted.

Hickel hadn't held elected office before he defeated two-term Democrat Gov. William Egan in 1966. He resigned in 1969 after Nixon selected him for the Interior post.

Hickel was known for complex views on resource management: once quoted as saying he wasn't interested "in conservation for conservation's sake," Hickel often spoke of Alaska as an "owner state" and advocated for responsible development in the state. Some critics saw him as too close to oil interests.

Other memos from January 1969 cite near-daily press coverage of the opposition to Hickel's nomination, mostly from conservation groups, and a letter to Nixon counsel John Ehrlichman seeks direction on whether to interview critics or investigate questions raised in a recent news story about a Hickel business getting a contract for airport plumbing and heating work. No response from Ehrlichman was included.

The file also included nearly 40 pages of news clippings chronicling the at-times rocky period during and surrounding Hickel's confirmation, from grilling by senators to a court fight with the IRS over $172,000 in income taxes.

One memo, from March 1970, detailed an "unruly and obscene" demonstration at Princeton University, where Hickel had been "shouted down" by demonstrators who "lit sparkler-type fire crackers, waved Viet Cong flags and used language of the vilest type replete with obscenities."

"The incident has led Hickel and his staff to give serious consideration to rejecting all future invitations to speak before college groups," it read.

As Interior secretary, Hickel imposed stringent cleanup regulations on oil companies and water polluters after an oil rig explosion off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. He fought to save the Everglades from being destroyed by developers. He also pushed for making Earth Day a national holiday.

He was fired from the post in late 1970, months after sending Nixon a letter criticizing his handling of student protests after the National Guard shootings at Kent State and U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

The fraud investigation, undertaken in 1973 and part of a broader look into the activity of the Alaska Air National Guard, probed the propriety of having some of Hickel's personal effects transported back to Alaska via guard plane.

Special Agent Robert Walker wrote that Defense Department regulations barred the hauling of non-military cargo aboard National Guard aircraft. His report included interviews with one-time guard officials, whose names were redacted, and an interview with Hickel.

In that exchange, Walker wrote Hickel acknowledged having books and records sent back on a military plane in December 1970 but said he was unaware this would be a violation, denied any "willful wrong-doing" and said "his only purpose in shipping his personal goods in the Air Guard plane is that the offer was made to him and he accepted."

An unidentified National Guard general said Hickel had asked for help transporting items and it was approved because it was "National Guard policy to do so," given in part Hickel's position as a federal official, according to the report.

In a May 1973 report, Walker concluded nothing was uncovered to support probable cause that a federal crime had been committed.

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