Corruption probe turns to fisheries

PHOTO/Rob Stapleton/AJOC
As a federal investigation into alleged corruption involving Alaska legislators widens, several major seafood companies have been subpoenaed for documents related to the investigation, industry sources say.

Sources in the industry said Dec. 18 that Peter Pan Seafoods is one of the processors served with a subpoena. It was assumed that any major processor who received funding from the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board in recent years was also subpoenaed, sources said. According to marketing board members, the AFMB itself has not been subpoenaed.

In a Dec. 16 story, the Seattle Times quoted industry sources who said Trident, Icicle and the At-Sea Processors had been subpoenaed in relation to the investigation.

Attorneys for At-Sea Processors Association, an organization that represents several pollock processing firms, declined comment, and Trident Seafoods and Peter Pan Seafoods did not return phone calls. An attorney for Icicle Seafoods said he could not discuss the case, even to confirm or deny that Icicle had received a subpoena.

While the investigation initially focused on relationships between certain Alaska politicians and Veco Corp., a major contractor in the oil industry, it widened in late summer to include the fisheries industry. The subpoenas themselves are court-ordered demands for information, but do not imply guilt or wrongdoing on the part of those named in the subpoenas.

Robert Thorstenson Jr., executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, also serves on the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. Thorstenson said the FBI started calling in late August regarding its investigation of Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens and that the subpoena for documents from the Southeast Alaska Seiners arrived Nov. 15.

Thorstenson said he expects to deliver two boxes of documents to the FBI in January, but said he felt there had been no wrongdoing on the part of the Southeast Alaska Seiners. “Anything we had to do with the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, Ben Stevens or Trevor McCabe, there’s not one thing that was done improperly,” he said.

McCabe, an Anchorage attorney and registered congressional lobbyist, is currently a lobbyist for the seiners association, Thorstenson said.

Stevens, an Anchorage Republican, has worked in the seafood industry, most recently as a business consultant, but also in other capacities, including as a crab boat captain in the Bering Sea.

Thorstenson said that for about 15 months, while the seiners association was lobbying for a buyback of commercial fishing permits for Southeast Alaska, the organization paid about $5,000 a month to Advance North LLC, an Anchorage firm owned by Ben Stevens and McCabe, but that their dealings were only with McCabe.

Stevens, until recently, served as chairman of the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, which has over the last four years handed out grants totaling $30 million. His father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, helped secure federal funds garnered from import fees on foreign seafood for distribution by the fisheries marketing board.

The younger Stevens also served on the board of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in the mid-1990s, and has worked as a business consultant either directly or through industry organizations such as the North Pacific Crab Association. The crab association, which successfully lobbied Congress for processor shares under the federal crab rationalization legislation, has since disbanded.

Both Stevens declined to comment on the issue.

McCabe also declined to comment on the investigation.

The Justice Department investigation into the alleged corruption went public in August, when the FBI came to search the legislative offices of Ben Stevens and several other state legislators. At the time, the FBI took documents related to the legislators’ dealings with Veco and also began making inquires into Ben Stevens’ business relationships in the fisheries industry.

Kodiak attorney and commercial fisherman Duncan Fields, who currently chairs the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, said in an interview in Anchorage in early December that the board is “the catalyst for companies that may have production opportunities or may be in production, but just don’t have the extra resources to market, or for new products, or for folks who have a great idea and just don’t have the marketing money.”

Fields noted that the 2006 marketing board grants were matching grants that aided a cross-section of the industry.

The 2006 awards included $516,709 to Ocean Beauty Seafoods, $444,852 to Peter Pan Seafoods, $418,942 to Icicle Seafoods, $369,706 to Trident Seafoods, and $187,432 to Norquest Seafoods, which is owned by Trident. The fisheries marketing board also gave the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute grants of $1.5 million to market wild Alaska seafood nationwide, and $750,000 to augment its nationwide television advertising campaign for Alaska seafood.

Mark Palmer of Ocean Beauty Seafoods is the chairman of ASMI. Trident’s Joe Bundrant and Peter Pan’s Barry Collier also serve on the ASMI board, along with Fields and two other small Alaska fish harvesters. To date, marketing board grants, including 2006 allocations, have included $2.8 million to Ocean Beauty, $2 million to Peter Pan and $1.7 million to Trident.

The investigation’s new focus on companies that have received grants from the fisheries marketing board has raised concern from fishermen like Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, who represents the United Salmon Association on the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board.

Schactler defended the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, saying the concept began with him, rather than Sen. Ted Stevens. The elder Stevens has been criticized because once the board was created and received millions of dollars in federal funds to distribute, his son, Ben Stevens, became the board’s first chairman.

According to Schactler, it began with a concept which he designed, and took to the board of United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), which then made recommendations to Sen. Ted Stevens.

“What they recommended to Stevens turned out to be different than what he came up with,” Schactler said. “It came out of the industry, not Ted, but Ted made it happen.”

UFA has not been contacted in regard to the investigation, nor has UFA been subpoenaed, said Mark Vinsel, executive director of UFA. “I don’t think UFA is directly involved in anything they’re looking into.

“The common factor to all of it is Ben Stevens,” Schactler said. “If it was about the marketing board, the board would have been subpoenaed a long time ago.”

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected].

12/23/2006 - 8:00pm