Alaska News Nightly: October 13, 2011

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Kott to Plead Guilty to Bribery

Associated Press

A former Alaska state lawmaker caught up in a federal corruption probe has indicated he will change his plea on one count.

Thursday, former House Speaker Pete Kott filed notice with the U.S. District Court that he intends to plead guilty to one count of bribery.

A message left with Kott’s attorney in Seattle, Peter Camiel, was not immediately returned to The Associated Press.

Kott was convicted of conspiracy, extortion and bribery in a case stemming from maneuverings around oil tax legislation in 2006. He went to prison for a six-year sentence but was released when prosecutors acknowledged they hadn’t turned over evidence favorable to the defense.

He was scheduled to be retried in Fairbanks in December.

North Slope Ringed Seals Develop Mysterious Illness

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Dozens of Ringed Seals on the North Slope have developed a mysterious illness that’s causing severe skin lesions. Many of the seals have died. Other Arctic marine mammals could also be affected and several agencies are investigating the cause.

Proposed Bill Would Expand Denali KidCare Program

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Thursday, senators began looking at a bill that would expand the Denali KidCare program to include more children.   It is basically the same bill that passed the legislature in 2010 that he governor vetoed.

The Federal Government pays for seventy percent of Denali Kid Care as a health insurance program for children of low-income parents. When it was put in place in 1998, it covered families earning less than double the federal poverty level.  That was lowered when Frank Murkowski was governor to the current one hundred seventy five percent of the poverty level.  The bill would return the coverage level to two hundred percent.

The bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Anchorage Democrat Bettye Davis, says she’s looking for ways to make the measure more amenable to the Parnell administration — to avoid another veto.

“It does not mean that I want to change the focus of my bill.  But there might be some things that we want to go along and do some legislation separate from the bill itself. The bill is just flat-out to increase it from 175-percent above the poverty level to 200.  And that’s not asking for very much,” Davis said.

Davis told the Senate Health and Social Services Committee that by limiting the children’s health program to families earning the lower incomes, Alaska is near the bottom of all states, while more than half the states accept families at more than the 200 percent level.

“A state as wealthy as we are, I don’t see a reason why we should not be able to do that also.  So for that reason, this is a priority of mine, to pass this bill so that we might be able to bring on approximately 1,300 children and 300 or less pregnant women,” Davis said.

Last year’s veto of the similar bill was based on the governor’s belief that by offering medical care to pregnant women, the program was used to pay for abortions.  Opposition to the bill was based on that argument.  Anchorage Doctor Ilona Farr charged that there is misuse of the program.

“Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath to prevent us from giving a woman abortive remedy.   And our tax dollar should not pay for any procedure that kills the future children of Alaska.  And that has to do with Medicaid,” Farr said.

However, June Sobocinski, of the United Way in Anchorage, told the committee that 100 percent of the agencies her organization works with had volunteered to lobby to get the bill passed.  She encouraged legislators and the administration to work through the abortion issue to allow the bill to be enacted.

“Let us engage this question of abortion, but apart from this bill, which is about the health of children we already have.  Let us find the appropriate context in which to grapple with that question.  Let us hold harmless these 1,300 children and these up to three hundred pregnant women,” Sobocinski said.

Also supporting the measure, Elizabeth Ripley, executive director of the Matsu Health Foundation, based in Wasilla, said Alaska has seen a 30 percent decrease in the number of children covered by private insurance during the past decade, while the number of poverty level children is increasing. She said making the program available to more children would improve the general health level of Alaskans.

Senate Bill Five is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, where it was sent after coming up one vote short of passage during this year’s session.

Army Investigating Death of Ft. Wainwright-Based Soldier

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Army is investigating the death of a Ft. Wainwright based soldier, trying to determine if it was murder or suicide.  First Stryker brigade Private Danny Chen of New York City was found dead in Afghanistan Oct. 3.   U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman Christopher Grey says the 19-year-old Chen’s body was discovered at a forward operating base where he was stationed in Kandahar province.

Grey says the Army investigates all deaths as if they are homicides.

Private Chen’s parents told NBC news in New York they don’t believe their son took his own life. They say he was happy, but that the Army also informed them he had been racially taunted by fellow soldiers and once beaten by a group of six superior officers. The Army’s Grey would not comment on any harassment or abuse private Chen, a Chinese American, may have suffered.

Grey says the investigation is looking at both how Chen died, and the circumstance leading up to his death.  He could not say how long the inquiry will take.  Private Chen joined the Army last January and arrived at Ft. Wainwright in May.  He deployed to Afghanistan in August as a replacement in the First Stryker Brigade combat team.  Chens’ funeral was held today in New York.

Alaska Native, American Indian Leaders Organize Priorities

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

As the federal budget is scrutinized for savings, there’s a mad-scramble going on in Washington to protect programs from drastic cuts.  This week Alaska Native leaders joined with the National
Congress of American Indians to speak up for the Indian Budget and tell Congress and the White House about their other priorities.  But they couldn’t entirely escape the recent Congressional scrutiny on Alaska Native Corporations.

The National Congress of American Indians is focusing its sights on three issues:  protecting funding for Native programs, restoring the Interior Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes, and protecting Native women.

Edward Thomas of Juneau is president of the Tlingit Haida Central Council, and says speaking with a unified voice rings more powerfully.

“If you look at 500-plus tribes, 550 tribes, you’re going to find that everyone has different priorities.  And so it’s important that we don’t come back here and give Congress mixed messages on really what our priorities are,” Thomas said.

This week Thomas and other Alaska Native leaders met with members of Congress and their staffs to give their input – and gauge how tough some of the upcoming fights will be.  Thomas says the Congressional delegations of Alaska and Hawaii didn’t paint a doom and gloom

“I have not heard the “these are tough times” message from the people that we’ve spoken to. Their message to us is we’re going to do our best to hold our own because of the government to government relationship the federal government has with tribes. And so those are the messages we’re hearing, and we’re encouraged by it.  But you know as well as I do they’re small voice compared to the rest of the Congress.  So we really need to work with them to educate Congress on our issues,” Thomas said.

It wasn’t just tribal leaders who came to Washington – so did representatives of Alaska Native Corporations, like Rosita Worl, Vice Chair of Sealaska in Southeast.

She was part of a meeting this week with President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, Kim Teehee.

Worl says the White House meeting with Alaska Federation of Natives focused on what happens when money is tight and the need for hunting and fishing is strong.

“The overriding issue was subsistence.  Subsistence hunting and fishing and the protection and rights of protection to sustain themselves, to maintain their spiritual relationship with the land and the environment.  We said yes we know that we’re facing budget cuts.  If we can’t feed ourselves from the resources from the land then we’re really in trouble.  It was a powerful meeting that we had,” Worl said.

The reputation of Alaska Native Corporations has been under fire in Washington as members of Congress call for hearings investigating last week’s arrest of a subsidiary employee in a major bribery and corruption scheme.  A former executive of EyakTek, part of the Eyak Corporation of Alaska, was busted with Army Corps of Engineers employees for padding federal contracting invoices to the tune of $20 million.

The head of Eyak Corporation is Rod Worl, who has not talked to the media.  Rosita Worl is his mother.

“I know he is constrained, as well as his board members, they’re constrained by what they can say.  I know they’d love to tell the whole story, but right now I know their legal counsel is telling them what they can and can’t say,” Worl said.

Worl calls the corporation a victim.  She says the EyakTek scandal has not overshadowed this week’s meetings and messages, or tained the Corporation mantel.

Albert Kookesh agrees with Worl.  The Democratic State Senator is on Sealaska’s Board of Directors and says he feels no association with the EyakTek arrest.

“See the problem here is there were no Natives included in that fall out.  These were non-Native people.  And then we get the blame for it, they paint us with the same brush.  If three members of the native Eyak family had gotten arrested because they’d done something wrong maybe I would’ve felt bad about it,” Kookesh said.

But even as the corporate leaders join with tribal leaders to plead the case of Alaska Native priorities, from subsistence to funding for Indian programs, the Alaska Native Corporations are under scrutiny. When asked if he was meeting with some of the critics of ANCs to counter their message, Kookesh said he didn’t have the chance.

And the Congressional attention on EyakTek continues – on Thursday Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey asked the Department of Homeland Security to hand over documents and emails about how business went down at EyakTek.  In a statement Markey said Alaska Native Corporations should be representing their people, but that there are “real questions” about whether this particular company did that.

Search Continues for Missing Fairbanks Man

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The search continues for a Fairbanks man missing northeast of the city.  Gerald DeBerry was last seen Monday riding a 4 wheeler in the Frozen Foot Creek area, near mile 70 of the Steese highway.  DeBerry was a volunteer member of a search team looking for a Utah woman who was found safe Monday morning.  Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters says the 53 year old DeBerry has good knowledge of the area, but reports from fellow searchers who talked to him on the trail indicate possible trouble.

Peters says one of the fellow searchers gave DeBerry a jacket to wear over his sweatshirt, but that he does not have gear or provisions to be out for an extended period.  She did not know if he has any communications equipment.  She says the search for DeBerry has been extensive, employing  ground  crews, search dogs, state, military and civilian aircraft, but that they’ve  scaled back to aerial efforts on Thursday.

Peters says they’re hoping to find some sign of DeBerry to narrow the search area and focus a ground crew on.

Juneau Woman Wins Ultramarathon Bike Race

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Dr. Janice Sheufelt had no idea she could win an ultra-cycling event. After years of competing in short bike races, she just started long distance training in the last year.

“I figured, well, I’m doing all this training, it would be a good year to do an ultra – ultra meaning extra-long distance bike race,” says Sheufelt.

She found the Furnace Creek 508 on the Internet. Despite its name, the course is actually 509 miles. It starts just outside Los Angeles, and stretches through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, before curving back to the finish line near Joshua Tree National Park. It crosses ten mountain passes and has a total elevation gain of over 35-thousand feet.

To prepare Sheufelt biked around Juneau – a lot.

“To the end of the road, and then up Eaglecrest, out Thane, out North Douglas, and then to the end of the road and back,” she says.

By the end of the summer, she figured she’d been up to Eaglecrest 56 times this year. She also did a couple 24-hour rides in Washington, where the roads aren’t as hard to come by and the weather isn’t so wet.

“I did one 16-hour overnight training ride in Juneau, but the second eight hours it just poured rain the whole time – this was in July. And that was just miserable,” says Sheufelt.

Instead of a bib number, contestants in the Furnace Creek race pick a totem, or animal, to represent them. As they go through each checkpoint, riders shout out their animal’s name, and that’s how race officials keep track of everyone. Sheufelt, who’s half-Tlingit, chose “wooshkeetaan” as her animal.

“Of course, no one knew what wooshkeetaan was, but by the end of the race everyone was just calling me the Alaska shark,” she says.

Sheufelt had no idea she was doing well in the race until the second to last checkpoint. That’s when her support team, which consisted of husband Jim, daughter Megan, and friend Peter Apathy from Sitka, told her she was in second place in the women’s field and tenth overall.

“And I was like, ‘Oh come on, really?’” she says.

Really. And at the last checkpoint, Sheufelt’s team found out she was only 15 minutes behind leader Seana Hogan, a well-known ultra-cyclist and six time winner of the Race Across America.

“They didn’t tell me that, because they wanted me to just keep riding my own race and not change anything,” she says.

Going up a hill during that last leg, Sheufelt she caught a glimpse of a rider she didn’t recognize.

“It turns out it was her [Hogan],” Sheufelt says. “And she was stopped momentarily and her crew was tightening some bolts on her bike or something. And, I rode by her and she did a big double take and yelled something at her crew, and then I knew the race was on.”

Hogan would give chase, but finish 12 minutes behind Sheufelt, who was the only solo female racer who had never competed in the Furnace Creek 508 before.

“My goal was just to finish, so I was completely shocked to win the race,” Sheufelt says.

Beating out world class competition in her first ultramarathon hasn’t gone to her head. The win qualifies Sheufelt for the Race Across America, but she says, “I definitely know I am not doing that. Because that takes a minimum of nine days, and that’s a bit much.”

The 45-year-old – who’s administrator of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Ethel Lund Medical Center – says she may do another race similar to Furnace Creek, though, including the Fireweed 400 in Southcentral Alaska.

Speed Skater Training in Fairbanks Despite Lack of Venue

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The season of snow and ice in Fairbanks has people thinking about skiing, and dog mushing but one Fairbanks resident is quietly pursuing a winter sport that doesn’t get much attention in Alaska.  Elite speed skater Liam Ortega has been training in Fairbanks despite living thousands of miles from an official venue.