Alaska News Nightly: December 10, 2010

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Judge Rules Against Miller Challenge
Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau, Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks & Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
A state judge has ruled against Republican candidate Joe Miller in his challenge over the counting of more than 8,000 write-in ballots in the Nov. 2 election. They were cast for Senator Lisa Murkowski, his opponent and the apparent winner of the race for U.S. Senate.

Ketchikan Superior Judge William Carey issued the 34-page opinion this afternoon, granting the state Division of Elections’ request for summary judgment.

Miller wanted only write-in ballots for Murkowski counted in which the voter had spelled her name exactly. However,  Judge Carey wrote that state law and Alaska Supreme Court precedent already allows the Division of Elections to determine voter intent in the counting of write-in ballots, as long as it’s a “reasonable or common sense interpretation.” In other words, minor misspellings would be allowed as long as the name is “as it appears” on a declaration of candidacy. Judge Carey does not believe that is the same as “exactly” or “precisely”. Excluding ballots for a small error could disenfranchise elderly, disabled or naturalized voters.

Other claims by Miller that voters’ identities were not checked at the polls or that ballots had similar handwriting were both turned aside. There was no evidence shown that election workers acted unlawfully.

No word from the Miller campaign yet. A campaign spokesman indicated that a statement would be forthcoming.

The denial of all of Miller’s claims, as well as a single claim lodged by Murkowski, means the case will likely be appealed immediately to the Alaska Supreme Court. A stay on the opinion is in effect through Tuesday so appeals can be filed.

Murkowski had intervened in the case because of votes for her in which the ovals were not filled in.

Judge Carey wrote that, no matter what opinion would be issued about the status of challenged ballots, the overarching issue would still be moot. The final outcome of the election would not change. Murkowski would still have an over 2,000 vote lead. But he determined the dispute justified a court’s careful review because of the high public interest.

Election Day was more than a month ago, but both Miller and Murkowski have continued to raise money to pay for the court battle.

Joe Miller had more than $900,000 in the bank as of Nov. 22, and Lisa Murkowski nearly $500,000.  Candidates recently reported their fundraising chests to the Federal Elections Commission through the Nov. 22.

Miller hit Election Day with hundreds of thousands of dollars unspent, and has gotten more than $240,000 in contributions since last month’s general election.

He spent some of the money paying himself back.  Miller Campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto says the latest donations have enabled Miller to recover more than $100,000 he used to jump-start his Senate run.

Federal Elections Commission rules allow candidates to pay themselves back money loaned to their campaigns. The majority of the money that’s been contributed to Miller since the November election has come from outside Alaska, a mix of individuals, groups and political action committees.  De Soto says most of the funds raised since election day are going to legal expenses.

Candidates can continue to fund raise after the election, as long as they file regular federal reports.  If a candidate finishes a campaign and wins, they can roll any extra funds to their next race.  If a candidate loses, he or she can donate the left-over money to charity, convert it to a multi-candidate committee, or make contributions to other committees, or state and local parties.

Denali Citizens Council Appealing Decision Allowing Usibelli’s Natural Gas Search
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Denali Citizens Council is appealing a state decision to allow Usibelli Coal to look for natural gas in the Healy area.  The appeal filed this week in Superior Court challenges the Department of Natural Resources best interest finding on an exploration license for work on over 200,000 acres of land on both sides of the Park’s Highway near Healy and Denali National Park.  Denali Citizen’s Council President Nancy Bale says the state did not follow through with commitments to local people made during a drawn out permitting process.

Bale says the decision to appeal was tough for the board.  She says the Healy based group supports natural gas development in the Denali Borough in general, but has problems with some lands in the license area, including private property, recreation and wildlife sensitive areas. Bale says the Citizen’s Council hopes to collaborate with the local coal mining company to come up with a compromise solution.  The exploration license can be converted into a development lease if Usibelli finds gas. The state has claimed exploration and even development will likely only affect a small part of the licensed area. Each step of the process includes public review.

Statehood Documentary Premiering in Anchorage
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
An archive clip of Edward R. Murrow from the new documentary Statehood! from independent film producer Larry Goldin of Aurora Films. Statehood! premieres this weekend at the Anchorage International film festival. Goldin’s film chronicles the important steps leading up to the passage of statehood and explores those who were vehemently opposed to the territory becoming a state as well as what the passage means today. Goldin says Ernest Gruening had been to Alaska as the director of the division of island possessions and territories  but when he was sent here as territorial governor, he didn’t like what he found.

Statehood! premieres this weekend at the Bear Tooth Theater in Anchorage on Sunday afternoon.

140-Year Sentence Upheld by Court of Appeals
Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka
Jason Abbott will be at least 66 years of age before he is eligible for parole.

The Alaska State Court of Appeals on Wednesday (12-8-10) upheld the 140-year sentence imposed on Abbott by the superior court in February.

In 2008 Abbott, then 18, stabbed to death his two grandparents, an aunt and her boyfriend in their Sitka home. The three-member panel of appellate judges concluded that the sentence was consistent for cases of murder involving multiple victims.

Trial of Hoonah Man Accused of Killing Two Police Officers Delayed
Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau
Trial has been postponed indefinitely for a Hoonah man accused of shooting and killing two police officers over the summer.

New Emergency Operations Center Coming to Fairbanks
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Fairbanks Borough will build new emergency operations center. At a regular meeting Thursday night, the Borough Assembly approved spending over $1 million in federal and state grant money to put a 2,000 square foot addition on a fire station on Farmers Loop to house the facility.  Borough Emergency Services Director David Gibbs told the assembly it’s critical to the borough’s ability to respond to major incidents.

Gibbs says the center will be specially constructed to withstand floods and earthquakes.  The new facility will replace the borough’s emergency ops center on Peger road, that Gibbs said a federal assessment found to be sub standard.

Gibbs said the inadequacy of the existing center came to a head during the flood of 2008, and that a new Fairbanks facility became the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s the highest priority in Alaska. The idea of taking money from the debt-ridden federal government to build something that could only see minimal use raised questions and some opposition at last night’s assembly meeting.  Former assembly member Mike Prax asked the borough to consider alternatives.

The borough’s Gibbs responded by saying that other entities including the military, state and federal agencies have their own priorities, and in some cases security concerns, that impinge on borough use of their sites.

Questions were also raised about the construction cost of the emergency operations center.  Assembly member Mike Musick, a longtime local contractor, said the cost estimate seems excessive for a relatively small addition to an existing building.

Musick said the estimate comes out to $500 a square foot, but Borough Public Works Director Scott Johnson said that’s what high tech disaster resistant space costs.  An ordinance approving expenditure of the grant funds to pay for the new borough emergency operations center passed on 5 to 3 vote.

Alaska Public Interest Research Group Offering Free Toxic Toy Screenings
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
For 25 years the Alaska Public Interest Research Group has issued its Trouble in Toyland report about toys that pose a hazard to children.  This year, the organization added a new Anchorage event – free toxic toy screenings.