Stevens Stops Backing Controversial Board

Posted May 8, 2007 at 6:54pm

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has dropped his support for a controversial salmon marketing program he created that has funneled tens of millions of federal dollars to fishing industry interests in Alaska and has become an element of a Justice Department corruption investigation into the Senator’s former aide and his son, ex-state Sen. Ben Stevens (R).

According to the office of Ted Stevens, the veteran lawmaker has decided to stop backing the long-standing project, called the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, which he first created in 2003 as a federally chartered nonprofit organization. Ben Stevens and Trevor McCabe — a former aide to Ted Stevens, fishing industry lobbyist and business partner with Ben Stevens — have served on the group’s board of directors, as have representatives from a number of fishing concerns that have made significant campaign contributions to Ted Stevens over the years.

“The Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board did not receive funds in the [fiscal 2007 continuing resolution],” a spokesman for Stevens said. “The board is eligible to participate in the competitive grant process and apply for funding from the Promote and Develop Fishery Products and Research Pertaining to American Fisheries fund. The Senator believes that securing funding for the board in FY08 will be almost impossible given the current anti-earmark environment on the Hill. He will focus on other priorities for Alaska this year.”

The AFMB has become a key element in the FBI’s growing corruption probe in Alaska, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The probe already has resulted in the arrests of several state lawmakers and two close friends of the elder Stevens, VECO Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith.

Allen, who also owns a race horse with Ted Stevens, and Smith pleaded guilty to bribery, extortion and fraud charges Monday and are cooperating with federal agents. Although Ben Stevens was not specifically named in their pleas, he was clearly identified as “State Senator B.”

While federal agents originally had been focused on the oil industry’s role in influencing state legislators, their investigation has widened significantly since a series of raids on lawmakers and lobbyists in the state last summer. In December, federal agents issued a flurry of subpoenas to fishing industry companies, executives and lobbyists in Alaska, Seattle and Washington, D.C., targeting industry giants Trident Seafoods and Icicle Seafoods as well as the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade organization connected to Ben Stevens.

Sources close to the companies said they have been cooperating with federal investigators, and officials from the companies subpoenaed have denied any wrongdoing.

The AFMB’s connection to the FBI probe of Stevens’ son has brought renewed scrutiny on the project and the way it has doled out millions of federal dollars since 2003. Critics of the AFMB, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have long complained that it is little more than a pork-barrel conduit for special interests and large fishing companies in Alaska.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of what McCain and others call wasteful spending was a grant from the AFMB to Alaska Airlines to paint a jumbo jet to resemble a salmon, a project that cost millions but that was justified as a way to advertise Alaska salmon products.

In the state, however, the AFMB has long been seen as a mechanism for companies and individuals close to Stevens and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation to secure federal dollars.

Over the past several years, more than $100 million in federal funds have been passed from the AFMB to a handful of companies and nonprofit organizations with long-standing financial and personal ties to Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). Ben Stevens and McCabe, while they served on the AFMB’s board, also were connected to the At-Sea Processors Association, a collective made up of some of the region’s largest fishing companies. In 2006, more than $1.5 million in federal funding was sent through to several corporate members of the APA.

Likewise, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which boasts Young’s son-in-law Art Nelson as a board member, also received an $80,000 grant in 2006 from the AFMB, according to board documents.

Companies and nonprofit organizations affiliated with the AFMB or that received federal funding in the last round of grants have made significant campaign contributions to the Alaska Congressional delegation, totaling more than $153,000 since January 2001, according to a preliminary review of campaign finance documents. Additionally, APA and individual fishing companies paid Ben Stevens $659,000 to serve as a “consultant” between 2000 and 2005, according to his financial disclosure forms filed with the state Senate.

Other companies associated with Young and Stevens also have benefited from the AFMB’s funding. Arctic Paws, an Alaska-based dog-treat company, received a $150,000 grant from the AFMB in 2005 and a second $142,000 grant in 2006 to market its “Yummy Chummies” salmon-flavored dog treats.

Arctic Paws is owned by Brett Gibson and his brother Duane Gibson, a former top aide to both Stevens and Young who left Young’s shop in 2002 to join now-incarcerated lobbyist Jack Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig.

Although founded in 1997, the dog-treat company did not take off until the past few years, according to published reports, in part because of the funds from the AFMB. “If they hadn’t given us the opportunity, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Brett Gibson told The Associated Press in April 2006.

Gibson also has bragged in local press accounts that President Bush feeds Yummy Chummies to his dog Barney, and the brothers won a convert in 2004 when then-Treasury Secretary John Snow started feeding the treats to his dog, Gus, after touring the Arctic Paws facilities along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in July of that year.

Ted Stevens also has been a big backer of the fledgling company, handing out samples of the treats during a luncheon with other Senate lawmakers on July 27, 2006. According to a press release issued by Stevens’ office following the event, “At one point, [Stevens] even catered to members’ dogs, offering delicious Yummy Chummy dog treats from Arctic Paws.” More than 40 Members of the Senate attended the luncheon, the release says.

Neither Gibson returned requests for comment, and a White House spokeswoman said Monday that Bush has a policy of not revealing what brand items either he or the first lady purchase or use in the White House.