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Earmark Season Starting Anew

Correction Appended

Facing federal corruption investigations and what may be the most difficult re-election fight of his long career, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has released videos defending his use of earmarks to divert millions in federal funding to his state.

The videos come as lawmakers begin preparing for the annual appropriations process and as the Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairmen have begun soliciting earmark proposals from their colleagues.

Stevens — who last week formally launched his re-election bid — posted a three-part video on his Senate Web site earlier this month. In the videos, Stevens argues that because of the state’s remote location, sparse population and wide swaths of federal lands, earmarks are essential to Alaska’s economic development. He also argues that “most earmarks do not increase spending at all” and are simply a reprogramming of federal funds to needs that have been identified by state and local officials.

The video also features testimonials to the virtues of earmarks by Stevens, Cook Inlet Tribal Council President and CEO Gloria O’Neill, University of Alaska Director of Federal Relations Martha Stewart and Barrow Arctic Science Consortium Board President Richard Glenn. All three of their organizations have received significant earmarks in recent years, and Cook Inlet Regional Inc., a subsidiary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, has become one of the largest federal contractors in the world during Stevens’ tenure in the Senate, with offices across the country.

Titled “What Are Earmarks,” the 25-minute video uses examples of earmarks Stevens has authored over the years to prove that earmarks are not wasteful spending and are necessary for Alaska’s well-being. For instance, O’Neill and Glenn point to the Denali Commission and other earmarks that have increased access to remote areas. “Many parts of the infrastructure of rural Alaska have been strengthened by the Denali Commission,” Glenn notes in the video.

Likewise, O’Neill and Stewart highlight education, rural health care and job creation projects that have been funded by earmarks. One key benefit of the earmarks, according to O’Neill, is that they allow the tribe and other local governments to build programs that can eventually be used to compete for federal program dollars. Stevens’ earmarks have “allowed us to leverage other federal dollars,” O’Neill said.

Stewart also highlights research programs that have been undertaken by the university using earmarked dollars, including projects that have benefited the military and commercial aviation, and praises Stevens’ ability to bring funds home. “The university has been very well taken care of by the Senator … he’s been very generous, very kind and very deft in working the federal process for us,” Stewart said.

Stevens makes passing mention of the “Ferry to Nowhere” project that would use a high-speed ferry across the Knik Arm to connect a remote area to Anchorage, using it as an example of how he has followed new transparency rules.

Budget hawks have criticized the multimillion dollar earmark, which Stevens inserted into the fiscal 2008 spending bill, in part because it will benefit several current and former aides and business associates of Stevens who own property in the remote area the ferry would serve. Stevens does not respond to those criticisms, nor does the video mention a number of other controversial earmarks, including several that are at the heart of the federal investigations into him and his son, Ben. The video sidesteps mention of the more than $30 million that Stevens directed to the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, a nonprofit he created and where his son and his former aide Trevor McCabe were board members. The board doled out most of that money to companies that employed the two. The FBI and Internal Revenue Service are investigating the board.

The video also is silent on earmarks that Stevens authored that sent millions to the Alaska SeaLife Center. The FBI, IRS and Interior Department have launched an investigation into whether those funds were inappropriately diverted to McCabe as part of a land sale.

Stevens only references criticism of Alaska earmarks once toward the end of the video when talking about his efforts to fund the Barrow Arctic Research Center, saying “it has been criticized as an earmark, but people don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee has begun the yearly process of collecting earmark requests from lawmakers, with subcommittee chairmen sending out request letters to their colleagues.

As last year, Members this year will be required to provide the subcommittees with information on whom the money would go toward and the nature of the project, as well as a certification that neither the lawmaker nor their spouse has a financial interest in the earmark.

Although each subcommittee sets a deadline for requests, Senate aides said the bulk of the requests will be due by the end of April.

Correction: Feb. 25, 2008

The story incorrectly described the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The tribe’s government contracting activities are conducted through the Cook Inlet Regional Inc., an Alaska Native Regional Corporation. Although nine of the council’s 17 board members are appointed by CIRI, the two organizations are operated as separate entities.

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