Alaska News Nightly: October 20, 2011

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AFN Convention Gets Underway in Anchorage

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention got under way today in Anchorage at the Dena’ina convention center. The event is billed as the largest annual gathering of Native people in the United States. This year’s theme is Strength in Unity and AFN President Julie Kitka stressed that message in her remarks as she talked about the importance of a unified voice as Congress’s super committee looks to shave more than a trillion dollars from the federal budget before Thanksgiving. Kitka said although funding for Native programs is a small part of the overall budget, cuts to them could be devastating to Native communities. She says, this fall it’s crucial to be heard in Washington DC.

Congressman Don Young also talked about the importance of Alaska Natives standing together. He told the attendees that Native businesses are the economic base of Alaska.

But clearly the crowd was most excited about welcoming this year’s keynote speaker, the 2011 Iditarod champ John Baker, who was introduced by retiring North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta. As Itta proudly spoke of Baker not only winning the Iditarod after 16 years of running it but shattering the record by three hours, the crowd broke into a spontaneous honoring of John in traditional Inupiaq fashion.

When Baker spoke, he talked about being born and raised in Kotzebue. He said although there are problems that confront Native people every day, he prefers to see them as challenges.

But Baker didn’t spend as much time talking about himself or his accomplishments as he did about his mother, Marge Baker, who he called his role model. His father died when he was 6 and left John’s mother with seven children to raise. He said she never complained and raised all of her children to be independent, hard working people, all while running her own business, Baker Aviation.

He said the morning he won the Iditarod, he found out she had cancer but he said she still inspired her family to stay strong. He asked his mom, in the front row to stand for applause. Baker then brought his comments back to the theme of unity and not succumbing to the victim mindset, as he reminded people of the economic strength of Native businesses in Alaska.

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians  spoke next, saying listening to John Baker made her proud to be Alaska Native. Johnson Pata is Tlingit. She said NCAI is pushing three main issues with Congress. One is to make sure Indian Country is held harmless in the budget cuts, the second is restoring Native lands and the ability to take land into trust and the third is amending the violence against women act to safeguard Native women and children. Johnson Pata said NCAI is working against the continual attacks in Congress on Alaska Native Corporations involvement in the 8(a) federal contracting program.

She also stressed needed changes to Indian Education through a draft plan called the Indian Class Act. The AFN convention continues tomorrow.

Coast Guard Charges Helo Crash Survivor in Crewmates’ Deaths

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The U.S. Coast Guard has brought criminal charges against the sole survivor of a 2010 helicopter crash in which three people from Air Station Sitka died. Lieutenant Lance Leone is facing possible court martial for negligence and the death of two of his crewmates — all violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and all charges he intends to fight.

In July of 2010, a newly refit Jayhawk helicopter was flying to Sitka from Astoria, Oregon, when it ran into some power lines strung across a channel and crashed into the water off La Push, Washington.

Three of the four people on board were killed: the pilot, Lieutenant Sean Krueger, Petty Officer First Class Adam Hoke, and Petty Officer Second Class Brett Banks. Co-pilot Lance Leone was injured, and survived.

He’s now facing three charges from the Coast Guard: The first is that he negligently failed to navigate the helicopter away from charted hazards, and failed to make sure it was flying above 500 feet, in accordance with Coast Guard policy. The second charge is for the destruction of military property – the chopper – which was valued at $18.3 million dollars. Both of those charges are misdemeanors.

The third charge is a felony. The Coast Guard says Leone negligently caused the deaths of Hoke and Banks. There are two counts, each carrying a maximum of three years in jail. Leone is not facing charges in connection with the death of the helicopter’s commander, Sean Krueger.

The charging document amounts to what would be a criminal complaint in civilian courts. The Coast Guard intends to convene an Article 32 hearing – which is similar to a grand jury – to determine if Leone should be court martialed.

“The Article 32 hearings are not used to determine guilt or innocence,” says Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, a Coast Guard spokesman. “It is a review of the evidence that’s been collected, along with the potential charges that are being faced by the member.”

Wadlow says an investigation began immediately following the crash of helicopter 6017. The details of that investigation have not been made public, and the Coast Guard says they won’t be released until after the proceedings regarding Leone are concluded.

But a former military lawyer says the damage might already have been done.

“Your career can end without being court martialed; it doesn’t take much. In the military, it doesn’t take much,” said Lt. Col. John Pharr (Ret.).

Pharr is in private practice in Anchorage. But he spent most of his career as a Judge Advocate General in the Army.

He says in cases like this, acquittals are common, but even charges are enough to do serious harm to a military career.

“You’re toast if you’re acquitted, you’re toast if you’re found guilty,” he said. “So as far as your military career, it ends upon the charges in this day and age.”

Leone’s attorneys have asked him not to speak to the media during this phase of the process. In addition to a military-appointed lawyer, Leone is represented by Anchorage attorney Phillip Weidner, who did not return calls for comment.

Efforts in Sitka are underway to establish a legal defense fund to help Leone with expenses.

Pharr says the charges against Leone are extraordinarily serious, but not unprecedented. Military accidents always involve an investigation, and often, officers connected to the incident face some sort of consequence.

“In addition to the tragedy of whatever happened, if a training accident happens on your watch, you know that it’s going to potentially impact your career,” Pharr said. “Not only your career, but the careers of everybody up the chain of command.”

But Pharr also says Leone’s intention to fight the charges is a good move, especially in light of the felony counts.

“Oh, you have to defend yourself,” he said. “If you’re convicted of a felony, there’s a lot of disabilities involved in being a felon. You can’t serve on a jury, you can’t vote, you can’t possess a firearm. There’s a lot of reasons to not be a felon. Because that’s the way our system works, he should fight it. He should definitely fight it all the way.”

Wadlow, the Coast Guard spokesman, says the officer who presides over Leone’s Article 32 hearing will release the findings to Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, who commands the Coast Guard district encompassing Alaska. It will be up to Ostebo whether the findings proceed to a court martial, whether the charges are dropped, or whether the matter is handled administratively. Leone’s hearing is tentatively scheduled for December.

Many Turn Out for Hearing on Proposed ANWR Management Plan

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

There was a big turn-out in Fairbanks on Wednesday for a hearing on a draft management plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking feedback on the 15-year plan, and one aspect of the proposal is getting all the attention.

Tanker Truck Rolls Over, Spills Fuel in Fairbanks

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A tanker truck rolled on an icy road in Fairbanks yesterday and caused a fuel spill.  Snow and freezing rain coated local roads, and there were numerous accidents across the region. Ashley Anderson with the State Department of Environmental Conservation says the driver of the Alaska Aerofuel truck lost control of the vehicle on a residential street off the Richardson Highway.

Anderson says an estimated 1,500-2,000 gallons of heating oil spilled.  She says most of the fuel went onto pavement and into road side ditches, and a lot was cleaned up.

Anderson says teams used sawdust to absorb any remaining fuel. She estimates responders, including a city fire crew and borough hazmat team, collected about 1,000 gallons of the spilled fuel.  She says none of the oil went into storm drains, but there is concern about fuel soaking into un-frozen ground.  She says any contaminated soil will be excavated and hauled out for treatment.

Pipeline Bowl Cultivates Football Rivalry

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

High school football rivalries traditionally feature teams across town from each other. But in a state as big and sparsely populated as Alaska, some unusual rivalries are bound to pop up. The Barrow- Valdez pipeline bowl is one example. And as the high school football season winds down, KCHU’s Tony Gorman has this look back at how the contest started.

Carvers Using Traditional Tool in Chief Shakes Tribal House Renovation

Charlotte Duren, KSTK – Wrangell

The Wrangell Cooperative Association is moving forward on the renovation of the historic Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. And in a first for the community, three women were chosen recently as the local carvers for the project. They’re all using handmade adzes, a tool commonly used by Pacific Northwest Indians.