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Homeland Security Pays Dividends for Alaska
Posted on Oct 31, 2008
That wasn’t the end of national security appropriations in Alaska. What began as a $100-million port overhaul in Anchorage before 9/11 has morphed into a $700-million expansion project presided over by a former governor, Bill Sheffield, who’s well connected to Young and Stevens. Port officials say that more than half of the project’s costs will be covered by federal funds, and at least $150 million has already been steered by Young and Stevens toward the project through defense, transportation and homeland security appropriations, according to the Daily News and the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks earmarks.
Environmentalists complain that the project’s large, new design could threaten beluga whale and salmon habitats in the area because it calls for 135 acres of wetlands to be filled in. Proponents, however, argue the port’s size is needed to better serve cruise ships and to stage the swift deployment of troops based in Alaska if needed.
“The port’s important, we recognize that,” said Bob Shavelson, executive director of the Anchorage environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper. “But there’s no demonstrated need for an expansion this size. … They’ve wrapped this project in a shroud of homeland security to legitimize it when in fact the project can’t stand scrutiny.”
When 2,000 competitors gathered in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula for the Arctic Winter Games two years ago, organizers realized they were facing a large budget deficit. Stevens saved the day again with a $500,000 earmark folded into a defense-spending bill that his office said included a fund for ensuring security at international sporting events like the Olympics. The federal government had already spent $5.2 million to help build out the peninsula’s rural arctic infrastructure for the games and prepare its tiny regional airport for suddenly becoming a major point of entry by international travelers into the United States.
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“No only did we do a background check on every single volunteer but we needed to make sure that everything was secure,” Dillon said. “You had 350 athletes being housed at Kenai High School—we had to make sure that there was no way an outsider could just go walking into that school and wind up in the sleeping quarters or bedroom or bathroom of the participants.”
The group Taxpayers for Common Sense nonetheless designated the earmark as pork, as did one member of Congress in particular: Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“The cumulative effect of these earmarks is the erosion of the integrity of the appropriations process, and by extension, our responsibility to the taxpayer,” McCain said on the Senate floor in December of 2005 after listing each of the earmarks slipped into the bill by Stevens and other lawmakers.
Stevens has even found cash that allowed the U.S. Coast Guard to test pilotless Predator aircraft over Alaska’s vast, minimally active airspace.
As for Don Young, an aide to the Alaska representative pleaded guilty to charges made by federal prosecutors last year that he formed an illegal relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Prosecutors alleged that the aide, Mark Zachares, handed Abramoff privileged information about the 2002 creation of the Homeland Security Department, the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II. Zachares hoped to eventually win a high-level position at DHS, according to the charging papers, and special knowledge of its inner workings could have benefited Abramoff’s contractor clients.
Young remains under investigation today by the FBI for possible corruption, but it’s not clear where that probe might go, though documents have already surfaced publicly showing a relationship between Abramoff and Young.
Anchorage resident Diane Benson launched two attempts as a Democrat to defeat Young in the last four years, arguing that Alaska should expand social services and reach out to military families and veterans with the same zeal it displays in obtaining military contracts and financing for homeland security projects.
She surprised observers in 2006 race by coming relatively close, winning 40 percent of the vote after she pounded on Young’s associations with Abramoff clients. Benson lost a primary race this year but still managed to do the unthinkable for a former Green Party member—attract a sizable number of military votes.
“The oil boom brought in an influx of people and from that emerged a new politics,” Benson, a former truck driver on the Alaska Pipeline, said of her home state. “This is what we’ve come to be—a state that is in some ways obsessed with money. The irony is you hear these strong individualistic notions in this state that we’re fiercely proud of, and at the same time we’re just sucking on the tit of the federal government.”
G.W. Schulz has examined criminal justice, media mergers and municipal public policy for newspapers in California, Kansas and Oklahoma. He covers homeland security at the Center for Investigative Reporting and lives in San Francisco.
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