Alaska News Nightly: March 28, 2012

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio

US Senators Question Steven’s Trial Investigator

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today heard from the Special Counsel who conducted a court ordered investigation into misconduct in the 2008 trial of former Senator Ted Stevens. Henry Schuelke’s 500-page report detailing that misconduct was released to the public earlier this month. In it, he describes how federal prosecutors intentionally concealed key information from Steven’s defense team, in violation of their Brady disclosure obligation. Schuelke told the Judiciary Committee today that those failings were likely motivated by one thing.

“I think that motive, to win the case, was the principal operative motive. I do not believe that any of the prosecutors harbored a personal animus towards Senator Stevens. I don’t believe either of them sought fame and glory and that’s the reason they wanted to win the case, that’s just not in their personalities in my judgment. They did however want to win the case,” Schuelke said.

Schuelke says poor supervision of the prosecution team and the “compressed schedule” leading up to the trial also contributed to unintentional misconduct in the trial. Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a bill that would establish a nationwide standard for disclosing important evidence to defendants in federal court. Right now, prosecutors have to turn over evidence they determine is “material” to the defense. Murkowski’s law would compel prosecutors to turn over all evidence. The Justice Department doesn’t support the bill, saying it has already made sweeping reforms in the wake of the Stevens case. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois made the case for the new law.

“If we are really serious about avoiding this in the future, don’t we have to go further than to trust the instincts of the department of justice and prosecutors across America? Don’t we have to enshrine in the law some basic protection of the criminal defendant when it comes to this disclosure?,” Durbin said.

Senator Murkowski submitted written testimony to the Judiciary Committee. She asked the Committee to schedule a hearing for her bill and wrote that Schuelke’s report, “chronicles what I believe will be recorded by history among the darkest moments in the Justice Department’s 223 year history.” Ted Stevens lost his reelection bid one week after being convicted of failing to report gifts on Senate disclosure forms. The verdict was thrown out five months later when the prosecutors’ misconduct surfaced.

Fish And Wildlife Issues Draft Environmental Impact Statement For Proposed King Cove Road

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

For decades, the community of King Cove has lobbied for a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to nearby Cold Bay. Proponents say it’s critical for the remote community to have a more reliable way to evacuate medical patients. Conservation groups contend it would devastate critical wildlife habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued a draft environmental impact statement for the project, but a final decision about whether it should move forward is still more than a year out. In the meantime, King Cove is already building a road to the edge of the refuge.

Federal Government Approves Shell Spill Plan

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Shell passed another regulatory hurdle today in its quest to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean this summer. The federal government approved the company’s spill response plan for the Beaufort Sea. Shell wants to drill several wells in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas beginning in July. They already received approval for their Chukchi spill response plan. Pete Slaiby, Vice President of Shell Alaska says it wasn’t the final hurdle for the company, but it was a big milestone.

“Were excited this is a potentially a pretty big event for Alaska. It will mean jobs and I think we’re looking at the summer probably over 1200 jobs,” Slaiby said.

Slaiby says the company is busy getting ready for the summer drilling season. Pending final approval, they will be allowed to transit through the Bering Strait after July 1. But Slaiby says there is more ice than usual in the Arctic Ocean right now and that could delay the operation.

“We’re obviously not going to go in and see a large amount of ice and would have to break ice to go in and do this. We want to see ice pretty well clear out of the way before we would start operations. So if we’ve got information or we see that it’s not clearing that may indeed impact when we would finally do our sail away,” he said.

Environmental groups are criticizing the federal government’s decision. They say Shell hasn’t proven it has the technology or resources to clean up a potential oil spill in Arctic waters.

Chris Krenz is Arctic project manager for Oceana. He says the spill response plan that was approved Wednesday is inadequate.

“These paper plans that get approved don’t match reality. In the Deepwater Horizon, they had plans in place they said would be able to contain and clean up the size of spill that they had and they didn’t come close to doing that,” Krenz said.

Krenz says big oil companies have had spills all over the world. And there’s no reason to think a spill wouldn’t happen in the Arctic.

Redistricting Plan Changes Skip Southeast

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

The Alaska Redistricting Board released the plan Tuesday. And today (Wednesday), it considered a consultant’s report saying it would significantly reduce Alaska Native influence in one Interior House district and one western Senate district.

The plan responds to a recent state Supreme Court ruling saying the board put too much emphasis on protecting Native voting rights. The court said the board should have paid more attention to state constitutional requirements, which call for compact districts made up of similar communities.

The new plan changes election district boundaries for parts of the Aleutians and the Interior, as well as areas around Nome and Bethel. (See the statewide map of the new district boundaries.)

Redistricting Board Executive Director Taylor Bickford says the controversy does not include Panhandle communities. (See the Southeast map.)

“There was an influence district that was built in Southeast. But the board never claimed and the court never found that the board’s drawing of an influence district in Southeast led to violations of the Alaska Constitution,” Bickford says.

Petersburg officials hoped for new boundaries closer to its current district, which includes Wrangell and Sitka. Those districts were reworked because of population shifts from Southeast and to Southcentral Alaska.

The new plan combines Petersburg, downtown Juneau, Douglas Island and Skagway. That angers Petersburg Mayor Al Dwyer.

“We don’t think that Juneau is similar in any way to Petersburg or a fishing community. It has a processor there, but it’s not considered a fishing community. It’s a tourist community and a government (community),” Dwyer says.

“I completely understand why people would be unhappy. And I think there are a lot of unhappy people around the state,” says Juneau Democratic Representative Beth Kerttula, who serves in the House district slated to include Petersburg.

“All I can say is wherever the district I’m in is I’d be honored to represent it and work hard to do a good job,” she says.

Petersburg sued to change last year’s reapportionment plan. Mayor Dwyer says the Supreme Court ruling provides another opportunity to challenge the redistricting board.

“We kind of knew that they would propose that again. But we’re against it and we’re going to oppose it,” Dwyer says.

He says Petersburg could return to court, depending on the cost.

Redistricting shrinks the region’s legislative delegation from eight to six. That means four lawmakers – two in the House and two in the Senate – will likely run against each other.

That puts one Southeast Native lawmaker – Angoon Democrat Albert Kookesh – at risk.

Kerttula worries the court-ordered change in the redistricting board’s focus – from voting rights to geography – could further isolate Alaska Natives.

“Whenever you start to redraw the lines you’ve got to have your eye on the fact that under the federal law we can’t dilute Native power,” Kerttula says.

The board’s voting-rights consultant identified two of the districts redrawn after the court ruling as areas of concern. (Read the voting-rights expert’s memo on the new district boundaries.)

One is a House district made up Interior villages. The other is a Senate district running from Yakutat to Kodiak and from Lime Village to Dillingham and out the Aleutians.

The redistricting board is scheduled to meet through Saturday. Executive Director Bickford says it should finish its work by then.

“We’re really just playing by ear at this point. We’re trying to do our due diligence, build the best plan we can and do it in a timely fashion,” Bickford says.

In Southeast, other district pairings put Sitka in a district with small cities and villages from Haines to Port Alexander. Ketchikan, Wrangell and northern Prince of Wales Island are in one district. And Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley and Auke Bay area remain on their own.

The latest reapportionment plan makes no changes to Southeast Alaska election district boundaries.

See a larger version of the new statewide map of the new district boundaries. (Small version below.)

See a larger version of the Southeast map.

Read the voting-rights expert’s memo on the new district boundaries.

Controversial Prop 5 Ad Draws Criticism On Eve Of Election

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

With less than a week to go until municipal elections, the propaganda war around the Anchorage Equal Rights Initiative is getting nasty. This week those campaigning for the initiative held a press conference to chastise their opponents and ask that ads they consider offensive to be taken off the air.

House Approves In-State Gas Line

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The House early this morning (Wednesday) approved the next steps necessary that could lead to an instate gas pipeline from the North Slope to Anchorage and South Central.   The bill authorizes $400 million for what is estimated to be a $7 billion project.

Governor At Odds With Senate Over Scholarship Money

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Governor Sean Parnell late Tuesday sent what he calls an “Action Alert” to his supporters asking people to call-in and criticize the Senate Finance Committee for cutting $5-million from a scholarship program.  His administration earlier this year requested legislation concerning the program be put on hold.

Eagle, Fox and Cat Video Goes Viral

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

What does it take to have a YouTube video go viral? A woman from Unalaska discovered one recipe this week. KUCB’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports on the unlikely Internet stardom of resident Pam Aus.