The $20 million earmark penned by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for a ferry project in the state — part of new defense spending legislation signed by President Bush earlier this week — could be a financial boon for those close to the lawmaker, including several figures in a high-profile federal political corruption probe in Alaska.
Although the earmark, which is listed in the bill as funding for an “expeditionary craft,” is set to go to the Navy, the ship ultimately will be used as a commercial ferry between Anchorage and Port MacKenzie, a remote point of land which takes more than two hours to reach by car but around 15 minutes by boat, according to published reports and planning documents by the local Alaska borough, Matanuska-Susitna.
While appropriators made deep cuts to many earmarks included in the 2008 Defense appropriations bill — signed into law by Bush on Tuesday — Stevens’ ferry earmark went untouched, despite the fact that the Navy had not requested the money and had rejected the experimental craft in the past.
The ferry, which would be built by Lockheed Martin, would connect downtown Anchorage to Port MacKenzie and bring cars as well as passengers to south-central Matanuska-Susitna.
Stevens’ brother-in-law, Bill Bittner, spent several years as a registered lobbyist in Washington at Birch, Horton, Bittner & Cherot. Lockheed Martin was among his clients.
According to published accounts, the Navy rejected the vessel in 2002 as impractical. Nonetheless, Stevens has continued funding it, inserting nearly $50 million for the project into appropriation bills from 2002 to 2006.
Several current and former members of Stevens’ staff — including Chief of Staff George Lowe and former top aide Lisa Sutherland — as well as Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) son-in-law Art Nelson own undeveloped land in south-central Matanuska-Susitna.
State officials have long sought to develop the area because of the rapidly shrinking open space in and around Anchorage.
According to land records compiled by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Senate financial disclosure forms and published accounts, Lowe owns a 2.6-acre parcel of undeveloped land in the borough's south-central region. Borough records show that Lowe’s land went from being appraised at $47,000 in 2005 to $57,500 in 2006. The value remained the same this year.
Sutherland, who worked for Stevens from 1977 until this March in a variety of capacities, including deputy staff director on the Appropriations Committee and staff director on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, now works on Stevens’ re-election campaign.
Along with her husband, Scott, a lobbyist for Ducks Unlimited, Sutherland owns slightly less than four acres in south-central Mat-Su. The value of the land went from $38,400 in 2005 to $65,000 in 2006, according to the borough assessments.
A second former Stevens aide, Trevor McCabe, also owns land in south-central Mat-Su, along with Young’s son-in-law, Nelson, and Yardarm Knot Fisheries LLC executive Alan Chaffee through the company Point Bluff LLC, according to public records. Nelson owns a 10 percent stake in the company, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Federal investigators are conducting an investigation into whether Stevens passed millions in federal earmarks to McCabe through the Alaska Sealife Center, which is based in Seward. Nelson, McCabe and Chaffee have been involved in the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, a nonprofit created by Stevens that has received more than $30 million in earmarks from him over the years.
The AFMB is part of a separate federal investigation into political corruption involving Stevens, his son Ben and the fishing industry.
Point Bluff owns two pieces of land in south-central Matanuska-Susitna, a 20.4-acre parcel and a 38.8-acre parcel. The assessed value of the 20-acre plot has gone from $121,000 in 2005 to $131,900 in 2006, while the 39-acre plot has risen from $169,000 to $180,000 in the same time.
McCabe and his wife also own a separate 3.7-acre parcel on south-central Mat-Su. The value of that property went from $37,800 in 2005 to $62,400 in 2006, according to the property assessment.
Correction: Nov. 20, 2007
The article incorrectly identified the Knik Arm. It is a body of water in the northeastern portion of the Cook Inlet. The Knik Arm references in the two stories were intended to refer to undeveloped land in south-central Matanuska-Susitna Borough.