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Alaska Native Corporations Cash In on Contracting Edge

Stevens also introduced language that negated, for contracts awarded to corporations owned by Native Americans, a Defense Department requirement of elaborate cost-benefit analyses before government work could be outsourced to private companies.

In 2001, Chenega teamed with another Alaska Native Corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., to win a $2.2 billion information technology contract at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Bethesda.

Then Chenega began pursuing homeland security contracts. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, federal agencies began to purchase large gamma-ray machines and other kinds of screening systems to scan cars, trucks and cargo containers for bombs and weapons of mass destruction. In 2002, Chenega officials learned that the U.S. Customs Service was preparing to solicit bids for a $500 million contract to maintain the machines and train agents how to use them, interviews and documents show.

John Emelio, a marketing consultant for Chenega, approached Bickelman, the Customs procurement official. A former official at the Indian Health Service, Emelio had worked with Indian tribes for four decades, in and out of the government.

Bickelman said he listened as Emelio explained that the contract limits for small businesses did not apply to Chenega and that any sole-source award could not be protested.

"A whole new line of thinking emerged," Bickelman recalled in a recent interview. In the wake of the terror attacks, Bickelman said, he was under pressure to award a contract as quickly as possible. "They needed a solution and they needed it fast."

On Dec. 15, 2002, Bickelman convened a meeting of procurement and contracting officials on the 13th floor of the Customs building in Washington. Bobbie Walker, a Customs business manager and technology support official, had never heard of Alaska Native Corporations. Bickelman described Chenega and its special rights.

Walker said it was initially hard for her to believe that Customs could avoid the headaches of competitive bidding for the contract. Walker and other officials called Bickelman the next day and asked to meet with Chenega executives. On Jan. 2, 2003, Customs held a meeting in one of its offices in Lorton to prevent word from leaking to agency colleagues and contractors.

"We snuck them into our place," Walker said.

At the four-hour meeting, Chenega executives presented a marketing book graced with a cover photo of Prince William Sound, framed by glacier-covered mountains. The 49-page book began, "Who is Chenega?"

After describing the history of the company, Chenega officials made their pitch. In response to questions about their ability to do the work, Chenega said it would subcontract some work to an established firm called Anteon International Corp. in Fairfax County.

Customs officials said they spent several weeks examining Chenega's performance on at least six other federal contracts and were told that the company received top marks.

By the end of February 2003, Customs decided to hire Chenega in a no-bid deal. The contract would begin as a one-year arrangement, with an option for up to nine one-year extensions.

'An Alternative Approach'

Several weeks ago, Chenega representatives contacted staff members for Alaskan lawmakers to request a meeting with the Transportation Security Administration. Chenega wanted to persuade the TSA officials to piggyback on the Customs maintenance contract and give Chenega a potentially much larger sole-source contract to maintain TSA's scanning equipment at the nation's airports.

In addition to officials from Chenega, Customs and Border Protection, and the TSA, the Oct. 19 meeting, in the office of Jon DeVore, the chief counsel for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), was attended by Kate Williams, a Stevens staff assistant. DeVore, who once worked for an Alaska Native Corporation, is a former Stevens staff member.

Several of the senator's former and current staff members have worked directly for or lobbied on behalf of Alaska Native Corporations. Lisa Sutherland, the deputy staff director on the Senate Appropriations Committee, worked as a legislative analyst for the Bristol Bay Native Corp.

Some of Stevens's former aides, including Ronald G. Birch, and Stevens's wife's brother, William H. Bittner, belong to Birch, Horton, Bittner & Cherot, a law firm that the corporations, including Chenega, frequently turn to when they are trying to win contracts, records show. In December, the Los Angeles Times reported on an arrangement in which an Alaska Native Corporation, Arctic Slope, pays $6 million a year to lease space in an office building partially owned by Stevens.

Chuck Kleeschulte, a spokesman for Murkowski, said the goal of the meeting in DeVore's office "was to make sure there was good communication between the two departments." When asked whether Stevens and Murkowski were trying to sway TSA to hire Chenega, he said, "U.S. senators never try to promote an individual company." As for the presence of Chenega at the meeting, Kleeschulte said the idea was simply to give the company a chance to "speak about the possibilities."

Last week, on Nov. 15, TSA announced it was delaying a plan to issue requests for proposals, which would have been a prelude to the bid process. The agency said it had been made aware of "an alternative approach."

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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