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Fishing trips put Washington on the hook

Steve Henn Oct 15, 2007

Fishing trips put Washington on the hook

Steve Henn Oct 15, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: Early returns are dribbling in in the presidential race… Not votes, but perhaps the next best thing: Midnight tonight’s the deadline for candidates to report their third-quarter finances.

The race for the White House gets most of the political money headlines, but it’s often others who use the power of the purse most effectively.

Over the past 20 years, Alaskan oil entrepreneur Bill Allen and people who work for him have given more than $1 million to candidates running for Congress. Allen pleaded guilty earlier this year to illegally bundling federal campaign contributions, and bribing state politicians.

But his connections gave him another way to gain influence in Washington: Fishing. Marketplace’s Steve Henn has more.

STEVE HENN: For years, Bill Allen was a supporter of two Alaskan charities with ties to the state’s senior senator, Ted Stevens, and his former Republican colleague Frank Murkowski. The charities have spent millions on lavish fishing tournaments, bringing Washington bigwigs to Alaska to catch salmon and mingle with executives and lobbyists.

If lawmakers paid for these trips, they would cost $1,000 a night. But they don’t.

Instead, political committees and a network of non-profits backed by lobbyists pick up the tab. There’s no evidence these trips broke the law. But Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal Policy Center, says the charities deserve much more scrutiny.

KEN BOEHM: You do have to look a lot more closely at anything their money touched.

The law, even after recent ethics reforms, allows the charities and Sen. Stevens’ campaign staff to keep secret the names of politicians they fly to Alaska.

But Marketplace obtained guest lists of the events, and hundreds of photos — including dozens of Bill Allen with some of the most powerful legislators in Washington. Melanie Sloan runs the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

MELANIE SLOAN: If you are in Washington, it’s hard to get more than a few minutes at a time with a senior member of Congress — whereas if you’re suddenly seated next to them on a fishing boat in Alaska, you’ll have hours and hours of time. You may not mention the legislative issue you need help with, but you are building a relationship.

Sloan says the access these fishing trips offer oil executives like Allen is priceless, but:

SLOAN: Members of Congress are only spending this much time with someone like Bill Allen for the money.

Allen gave a lot of campaign money to Stevens, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Stevens also used Allen’s money to help elect fellow Republicans, and then drew them into a circle that included loyal allies like Allen.

The experience of Norm Coleman shows this process in action, and the risks of these relationships: In the summer of 2002, Stevens and Allen worked together to pump more than $100,000 into hard-fought Senate races. Coleman, in Minnesota, got close to $25,000 from Stevens — including a bundle of contributions from Alaskans dominated by Allen’s company.

Coleman won, and a few months later Stevens invited him to Alaska for a fishing trip. Coleman took his son, and returned for three straight years.

Cultivating a close relationship with Stevens, who controlled billions in federal spending, was an important part of Coleman’s job. But accepting these free trips carried a risk, says Merideth MeGehee at the Campaign Legal Center.

MERIDETH MEGEHEE: There is always a question when high public officials are traveling on someone else’s dime.

In the mid ’90s, the Senate took steps to ban trips like these. But Sen. Stevens and a circle of supporters, including Allen, worked together to find a way around that rule.

Federal election law allowed political committees to pay for Coleman’s flights to Alaska. Senate ethics rules let him accept free flights from Anchorage to the fishing tournament, and to stay free at a private riverside home.

Federal law, however, does require political committees that pay for such trips to register with the Federal Elections Commission.

The committee Stevens’ allies set up to pay for Coleman’s first trip to Alaska didn’t — and that may be a violation of campaign finance laws, according to a former FEC general counsel and other experts. Meredith MeGehee:

MEGEHEE: When you are in such a mad dash to find the money and find the little ways to gain advantage, it is going to attract a lot of these folks who play very very close to the line and sometimes step over.

So what did Stevens and his supporters like Allen get for their trouble? In the case of Norm Coleman, maybe nothing. But it was very clear what Stevens wanted. From 2002 through 2005, Stevens and Bill Allen were in a major push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Coleman had promised in his Senate campaign to oppose that plan.

In 2005, there was a series of votes in the Senate over drilling in the Arctic. Opponents of drilling say it became harder and harder to pin Coleman down before each vote. In Minnesota, Scott Elkins at the Sierra Club says he eventually came to believe Coleman was a swing vote.

SCOTT ELKINS: We had to fight tooth and nail to keep Sen. Coleman to his word.

In December 2005, the debate over Arctic drilling came to what appeared to be the decisive vote.

ELKINS: And Senator Coleman, when his vote most mattered, turned his back on that promise and decided to vote to open the Arctic to oil drilling.

Was Coleman influenced by his relationship with Stevens and his Alaskan friends? Coleman says no. The very next day, he voted to strip the Arctic drilling provisions out of the bill, which also funded troops in Iraq.

In 2006, Coleman disclosed his free fishing trips on his Web site, even though Senate rules don’t require making these trips public. This year, Bill Allen pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Sen. Stevens is under federal investigation.

Coleman hasn’t been back to Alaska. But while raising money for what’s expected to be a hotly contested re-election race, he offered donors some trips with himself, including one to California for a Napa Valley wine tour.

In Washington, I’m Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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