The Alaska Congressional delegation over the past several months has quietly intensified work to secure federal help in developing a sparsely populated area outside of Anchorage, an effort that could yield significant financial benefits for family members and current and former aides of the three Republicans, according to the Congressional Record and state and local land records.
Although stymied in 2005 when Congressional reformers lampooned their “Bridges to Nowhere” earmarks, the delegation — made up of Republican Rep. Don Young and Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski — has continued to back a plan to develop south-central Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a largely unpopulated region of Alaska that currently is difficult to access but could become a major new suburb of Anchorage if a bridge is ultimately built to it.
If the area is successfully developed, that could mean a significant windfall for a number of people close to the Congressional delegation — including Young’s daughter, Joni, Stevens’ chief of staff and campaign manager and Murkowski’s state director — some of whom purchased land in the area just a few months before then-Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Young began substantive work on a massive highway bill in early 2003.
Although Murkowski’s office did not return requests for comment, Young spokesman Steve Hansen dismissed any personal benefit to the lawmaker’s daughter as incidental and said that Young’s long-standing support for the project is to help ensure the continued growth of the Anchorage area.
“The Mat-Su Valley is the largest growing community in the state … how many people are going to benefit from this project?” Hansen argued, adding that “Don has been talking about this for many many years” and that his daughter and son-in-law own only a small parcel of land on south-central Mat-Su.
Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders said Friday that Stevens has supported the Knik Arm Bridge project for 30 years “because it is what is best for Alaska. … With estimates projecting the population of South Central Alaska will grow by up to 200,000 people in the next 25 years, Alaskans need the Knik Arm Crossing to handle the area’s growing transportation needs.”
Saunders also said Stevens is not pursuing provisions in this year’s Water Resources Development Act bill because he does not sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee and that “Sen. Stevens and his staff have not been in any way involved in drafting language contained in the House bill. Sen. Stevens and his staff have not been contacted about this language. Any suggestion that they have been would be wildly inaccurate. … The Nelson Commission report sets ethics guidelines and Sen. Stevens’ staff members follow Senate disclosure rules.”
When Young took control of the Transportation and Infrastructure panel in 2001 and began planning for a rewrite of federal surface transportation laws, he listed the Knik Arm Bridge along with a bridge to Gravina Island as two of his top priorities for the state.
As part of the rewrite, Young included hundreds of millions of dollars in authorized funding for the bridges, which later would become known as the Bridges to Nowhere. Although those earmarks ultimately were eliminated by Congress in 2005, the state has received much of the funding in general transportation assistance and Hansen said the Knik Arm project is still being worked on.
The state also has begun work on a high-speed ferry project connecting downtown Anchorage with Port MacKenzie, according to state records.
Young included in this year’s WRDA provisions requiring the federal government to conduct a study of the impacts the bridge project would have on navigation in the Cook Inlet. The WRDA bill passed the House on April 19, and the Senate is expected to pass its version, which at press time did not include similar language, this week.
Separately, the House on May 7 passed the Alaska Water Resources Act of 2007, which, among other things, requires the Department of Interior to conduct a groundwater resources study of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Also known as the Mat-Su, the borough is the home to Port MacKenzie and the area Young’s Knik Arm bridge would connect to Anchorage. The bill passed the chamber by voice vote.
Murkowski and Stevens in January introduced a companion measure in the Senate, saying in a floor statement that the study was needed to ensure there would be no “limits on future economic development” in the Mat-Su region.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a version Feb. 16, although the full chamber has yet to act on it.
According to land records compiled by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Senate financial disclosure forms and published accounts, Stevens’ current Chief of Staff George Lowe owns a 2.6 acre parcel of undeveloped land in south-central Mat-Su, which he purchased in December 2004 from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, according to a copy of the deed.
The property, which is undeveloped, has seen marked growth in its value. 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.
Former Stevens aide Lisa Sutherland also stands to see significant financial gain from the development of south-central Mat-Su. Sutherland, a close confidante of Stevens, worked for the lawmaker from 1977 until this March in a variety of capacities, including deputy staff director on the Appropriations Committee and then staff director on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Sutherland left the Senate payroll in March to work full time on Stevens’ re-election campaign.
According to land records she and her husband, Scott, who is a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for Ducks Unlimited, own just under four acres in south-central Mat-Su, which they purchased in October 2002. The value of the land went from $38,400 in 2005 to $65,000 in 2006, according to the assessment. The Sutherlands also own several other properties in the Borough.
Murkowski State Director Mary Hughes also has property in south-central Mat-Su, which her family has owned for several decades. Hughes told the Anchorage Daily News in 2006 that her family would visit the lakeside lot during her childhood.
Additionally, Art Nelson, Young’s son-in-law, owns a 10 percent stake in Point Bluff LLC, a landowner in the area, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Point Bluff owns two pieces of land in south-central Mat-Su, a 20.4-acre parcel and a 38.8 acre parcel. Land records indicate the pieces were purchased on Dec. 6, 2002. The assessed value of the 20-acre plot has gone from $121,000 in 2005 to $131,900 in 2006, while the 38-acre plot has gone from $169,000 to $180,000 in the same time.
Point Bluff’s ownership includes former Stevens aide Trevor McCabe and Yardarm Knot Fisheries LLC executive Alan Chaffee. McCabe currently is under federal investigation along with Stevens’ son, Ben, as part of a broad corruption probe in the state.
McCabe and his wife also own a separate parcel in south-central Mat-Su, 3.7 undeveloped acres purchased in September 2002. 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.