Alaska News Nightly: December 13, 2011

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Bethel Judge Again Under Fire For Questionable Behavior

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

A Bethel judge is once again under fire for inappropriate behavior.

It’s known as ex parte communications and it’s a big no-no in Alaska’s Judicial Conduct Code. It’s when a judge communicates with just one side of a trial off-record. Bethel District Judge Dennis Cummings is being investigated for such allegations for the second time.

Two years ago, he was suspended from the bench for 3-months without pay for passing notes in court to the prosecution. This time, charges allege that in June Cummings told a Prosecutor twice off-record to look at an opinion that would help his case.

The Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct unanimously determined that the conduct warranted formal charges. The nine-member agency, which enforces the state’s judicial conduct code, filed a formal complaint against Cummings on December 9. Cummings has 20 days to respond to the Commission.

The new complaint includes two charges. The first one details the most recent event, when Cummings allegedly approached an Assistant District Attorney off-record about a proceeding. According to the complaint, Cummings suggested that the Bethel attorney read recent opinions by the Court of Appeals as they were relevant to his litigation. Cummings allegedly did the same thing the following day. After reading the opinions, the attorney determined that they supported the State’s position in the cases, which Cummings would be hearing later in June. If the charge is proven, Cummings’ behavior went against the state’s judicial code.

The second charge alleges that Cummings has engaged in a pattern of improper ex parte communications. It refers to Cummings 2009 suspension by the Alaska Supreme Court. That stemmed from a trial in 2008, when Cummings passed a note to an Alaska State Trooper which contained evidence about the trial. The next day in court, he passed a second note to the trooper and the prosecutor, which also contained trial evidence.

Next the commission will begin pre-trial preparation, which will be followed by a hearing. If the charges are proven, then the commission will send its recommendations to the Alaska Supreme Court, which will decide if there should be any disciplinary action.

According to their statutes, the commission’s recommendations could range from a public reprimand to removal from office.

Cummings has been a judge in Bethel for over five years. Before the 2009 suspension, he had no prior disciplinary record.

Court Upholds Alaska Tribal Government Sovereignty

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

On Friday the Alaska Supreme court agreed with a lower court and upheld Alaska tribal government sovereignty.  The attorney who argued the failed challenge says such tribal immunity doesn’t legally exist.

The case was brought by a contractor, Michael McCrary against the Ivanof Bay Village tribe and its president Ed Shangin. McCrary attempted to sue over disputed contract funds and the superior court dismissed the suit based on the Ivanof Bay Village tribe’s sovereign immunity. Federal, state and tribal governments can claim sovereign immunity from lawsuits. McCrary appealed the sovereignty ruling, arguing that Ivanof Bay Village is not really a federally recognized tribe. Heather Kendall Miller defended the tribe.

Kendall Miller says the John V Baker decision from the Alaska Supreme Court in 1999 was the first that fully recognized the autonomy of tribal governments to manage issues with tribal members and affirmed government to government authority between tribes and the federal government.

McCrary’s attorney Don Mitchell thinks Alaska’s high court got it wrong in John V Baker and tried to use that decision in the McCrary lawsuit.

Mitchell has long contended that Alaska tribes do not have legitimate federal recognition because in 1994 when Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Ada Deer gave 229 tribes here recognition, he says she did not have the authority to do so. A year later Congress passed the statute- the federally recognized Indian Tribe List Act. State Supreme Court justices referenced the list act in the John V Baker case when it affirmed tribal authority. Mitchell says because the actual statute passed a year after Alaska tribes were given federal recognition, it leaves that acknowledgement in question. He says the only way for what he considers legal gray area to be cleared up is for the U.S. Supreme court to decide the legitimacy of federal recognition for Alaska tribal governments.

As it stands currently however, Tribal government legal status has been clearly upheld by the state supreme court in two decisions. Mr. McCrary has no other recourse in the state court system. His attorney Don Mitchell says there’s been no discussion yet about whether to ask the U.S. Supreme court to review the decision.

APD Investigating Shooting Of Toddler

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

Anchorage Police continue to investigate the Sunday night shooting of a toddler who was sleeping in his bed when he was struck by a bullet fired in an adjacent condominium.

Ft. Wainwright Aviation Unit Returns to Fairbanks

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Ft. Wainwright based aviation unit that’s returned to Fairbanks was one of the last to leave Iraq, as the United States completes it pull out from the country.  Squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Michael McCurry says the 440 soldiers who returned to post last week hold a place in history as the Iraq war comes to an end.

McCurry says no casualties were suffered as the aviation squadron employed 30 Kiowa helicopters to provide aerial reconnaissance and security in five operating locations across northern Iraq during the 10 month deployment.  McCurry says during the last portion of the time in country, the squadron’s mission shifted to transitioning facilities to Iraqis.

McCurry has served five deployments to Iraq, beginning with operation Desert Storm, and has seen the complete arc of U.S. involvement in the country. McCurry will be relinquishing command of the Ft. Wainwright cavalry unit in February, but says his work is not finished yet, as he leads soldiers through a re-integration process on post.

McCurry says the aviation cavalry squadron’s return home to Ft. Wainwright will be officially marked with uncasing of the unit’s flag at a ceremony in February.

USPS Delays Post Office Closures

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

The U.S. Postal Service will delay the closure or consolidation of thousands of post offices around the country, including five in Alaska.

The Postal Service announced a five-month reprieve Tuesday morning, while Congress debates postal service legislation.  The agency says it will lift the moratorium on May 15.

The Douglas Post Office is on the Alaska list as well as the Anchorage Postal Store, postal stations at Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force bases, and the post office at Fort Wainwright Military Base.

Ernie Swanson, USPS spokesman for Washington state and Alaska, says those post offices are not yet out of the woods.

Several bills to help the financially strapped USPS are now before Congress.  The postal service can’t lobby Congress, and Swanson says none of them address all the issues…

Congress started requiring prepayment of benefits in 2006.

Alaska U.S. Senator Mark Begich is among the senators taking credit for the moratorium.  They met yesterday with U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and Postal Service Board of Governors Chairman Thurgood Marshall, Jr. to encourage the delay.

UAF Union Organizing Hits Stumbling Block

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The union that’s trying to organize University of Alaska staff says that UAF’s refusal to deliver some 1,200 letters to UAF staff is just the latest of several obstacles that the university has thrown in the path of the organizing effort.

Estimated $24 Million Needed To Repair Nome-Council Highway

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

The single biggest item on Governor Parnell’s disaster declaration for the Bering Sea storm was damage to the Nome-Council Highway.  Of the $30 million in reported damages, the state department of transportation estimates $24 million will be needed to repair damage on the road from erosion and large debris. The 73 mile road heads east from Nome to the traditional seasonal camp at Council.  Engineers are now preparing for emergency work next spring to open the road, followed by several construction seasons that will be needed to bring the road back to its pre-storm condition.

Clark Milne is the DOT’s Northern Region Maintenance Engineer.   He says the serious damage begins around mile marker 22.

Repairs from the storm should be eligible for Federal Highway funding.  Nothing has been finalized, but the DOT will be working with federal engineers to plan upcoming construction seasons for rebuilding the road and making improvements.

The Governor declared a disaster last week for the Bering Sea storm.  The state is now accepting applications for disaster assistance.

Outside Forces Present Challenges For Alaska Economy

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Outside forces – like the European debt crisis and turmoil in the Middle East – present both challenges and potential for Alaska’s economy.

That’s the message Governor Sean Parnell had for the Juneau World Affairs Council on Monday, in a speech reflecting on his first trip overseas as the state’s top elected official.

Parnell says he met business and government leaders on the trip, who called Europe’s debt crisis “a potential global contagion.” He pointed to the United Kingdom, where consumers buy more than $30 million in Alaska seafood every year.

But the governor says there are also opportunities in Europe. Many Eurozone countries, looking for a safe energy alternative to Middle East oil, are thinking of buying liquefied natural gas from the shale-rich Lower 48. Parnell says that opens up other markets to Alaska’s gas.

Recently Parnell has given more credence to the idea of an all-Alaska pipeline to Valdez, where a plant could make liquefied natural gas for export. But he also hasn’t given up on the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act goal of a pipeline through Canada to the Lower 48.

Parnell visited London, the Netherlands, Rome and Israel on his overseas trip. He said the Israel portion was paid for by the Israeli government. The governor’s spokeswoman Sharon Leighow says the state will pay for the rest.

Ship’s Return Pushes Million-Passenger Mark

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Norwegian Cruise Line says it will sail another ship in Alaska waters.

Company officials this week announced plans to return the Norwegian Sun to northern service two seasons from now. It last sailed here in 2009.

The Sun will sail from Vancouver to Whittier and back beginning in May of 2013.

Northbound cruises will stop at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and the Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat. Southbound itineraries will be similar, adding Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point and Tracy Arm south of Juneau, and skipping Glacier Bay.

Crane Gladding of Norwegian Cruise Line says each week-long trip will carry about 2,000 passengers. That adds up to around 40,000 for the season.

“We really feel like the time is right. And it really feels like with the cooperation of the government and the folks in Alaska that we’ve really seen a lot of improvement in the demand for the overall product,” Gladding says.

He says better marketing and improvements in docks and shoreside facilities helped his company decide to return. So did a reduction in the voter-approved cruise ship passenger fee, which dropped from $50 to about $25 dollars this last season.

Governor Sean Parnell and the Legislature credit that change for bringing more ships to the state. So does Ron Peck, of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

“By reducing the liability on the head tax, I absolutely believe that had an impact on cruise executives decisions and that’s great news for Alaska,” Peck says.

Industry critics disagree on the reason the Sun is leaving the Baltic Sea for Alaska.

Chip Thoma, of Responsible Cruising in Alaska, says international politics, not tax cuts, are bringing ships back to the state.

“A lot of these ships from Alaska and from the Caribbean went on to Europe thinking they would do well in the Mediterranean. And of course the Arab Spring came and that was just a debacle. So all those ships are coming back to this part of the world and that’s what I attribute all of the interest in Alaska again,” Thoma says.

Norwegian already sails two larger ships on roundtrips through the Inside Passage. The Sun sailed a similar route in 2009, its last Alaska season.

Its new itinerary is one way, dropping passengers off or picking them up in Whittier, the nearest cruise port to Anchorage.

John Binkley, of the Alaska Cruise Association, says that boosts passengers’ economic impact.

“Those people then will be getting on or off the ships in Southcentral Alaska. Many of them will travel then all the way up into the Interior and other parts of Alaska and be spending more money and more time in Alaska,” Binkley says.

Industry figures show cruise capacity peaked at just over a million passengers in 2007. It stayed about the same for two seasons, then dropped to about 880,000 for last and this year.

Next year, Princess will add a seventh ship to its Alaska fleet. And Holland-America is juggling vessels to carry more passengers. That will bring total cruise capacity up to about 950,000.

The Norwegian Sun’s 2013 addition raises passenger counts another 40,000, almost reaching the historic million-cruiser high of the last decade.

Binkley says other deployment announcements could come in the next few months.

“Most of the companies have them finalized now. And then it’s just a question of what their strategy is and when they release those to the public and when they start selling those,” he says.

Alaska cruises can run from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars, depending on the choice of cabin and other amenities.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Gladding says the Sun’s fares also depend on timing.

“There’s also great opportunities to sail in May, early June and September that offer an affordable price. So I think prices will start at about $699 per person and kind of go up from there as you get into peak times,” Gladding says.

Capacity estimates are based on two people in each stateroom. Actual numbers can be higher or lower, depending on the number of children and others along for the ride.

BBNA Set to Plan Regional Transit

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

Earlier this month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $15 million dollars to help American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments invest in public transit.     More than a million dollars of that money will go to nine tribal organizations in Alaska.