By James V. Grimaldi and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 26, 2008
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has made a crackdown on gift-giving to state officials a centerpiece of her ethics reform agenda, has accepted gifts valued at $25,367 from industry executives, municipalities and a cultural center whose board includes officials from some of the largest mining interests in the state, a review of state records shows.
The 41 gifts Palin accepted during her 20 months as governor include honorific tributes, expensive artwork and free travel for a family member. They also include more than $2,500 in personal items from Calista, a large Alaska native corporation with a variety of pending state regulatory and budgetary issues, and a gold-nugget pin valued at $1,200 from the city of Nome, which lobbies on municipal, local and capital budget matters, documents show.
About a quarter of the entities bestowing gifts on the governor are represented by one of Alaska's most influential mining lobbyists, who said in an interview that she was not involved in the tributes. The lobbyist, Wendy Chamberlain, has a relationship with the governor's family through the friendship of their teenage daughters.
On forms disclosing the gifts, Palin, who is the Republican vice presidential nominee, routinely checked "no" when asked whether she was in a position to "take official action that may affect the person who gave me the gift," and a spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign said the gifts had no undue influence on her.
In response to e-mailed questions, Meghan Stapleton, who is based in Alaska for the McCain-Palin campaign, wrote: "Throughout her career Governor Palin has stood for the highest standards of ethics. She spearheaded new ethics reforms in Alaska and took on her own party and entrenched interests to return Alaska's government to its people."
Records show that 23 of the gifts were offered during Palin's early months in office, when she was pushing the legislature to address a state corruption scandal by passing a package of ethics reforms. She accepted 18 gifts after the law passed in July 2007. Among other provisions, the law forbade executive branch officials from taking gifts from lobbyists or from interests with pending state business.
Gift rules for elected officials vary among states, with some such as Wisconsin banning all gifts and others with no applicable rules other than anti-bribery statutes. When former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) ran for president this year, he faced questions about his acceptance of more than $150,000 in gifts during a decade in office.
The Alaska attorney general's office contends that gifts to a governor must be evaluated on "a case-by-case basis," Assistant Attorney General Judy Bockman said. Some are offered as "a courtesy," she said, to newly elected officials and are not considered an ethical issue.
Palin has noted that passage of the tough ethics law was a proud accomplishment. She took office amid a widespread federal investigation of influence-peddling by Veco, a now-defunct oil pipeline services and construction company, that had led to indictments of prominent state legislators and eventually to charges against Ted Stevens, the state's senior Republican senator, who is now on trial in Washington.
Palin forwarded her ethics proposals to the legislature in January 2007, her first month in office. That month, she accepted three gifts from Calista's chief executive, Matthew Nicolai: a $2,200 ivory puffin mask, a woven grass fan worth $300 and a $150 ivory necklace. Nicolai, who did not return phone calls, runs the large corporation, which profits from a multibillion-dollar gold-mining operation on its land.
Palin, who holds significant sway over budgetary issues affecting cities, also accepted for "personal use" the gold-nugget pin from Nome. Mayor Denise Michels said the memento was meant to remind the governor that "Nome is a historic mining community." Palin approved about $6 million in funding this year for a public safety building in the city. "Anything our state can do to help us in capital projects, we're very grateful," Michels said.
Palin has also reported as gifts two fact-finding trips that mining companies sponsored for her husband, Todd. The trips were among several sponsored by mining companies for state officials.
Todd Palin accepted an $805 charter flight from Barrick Gold and a $200 flight from Red Dog Mines. Both companies are clients of Chamberlain, a top lobbyist with Legislative Consultants, which led the state in lobbying income last year.
Red Dog is the sole taxpayer to the Northwest Arctic Borough, an Alaskan jurisdiction represented by Chamberlain that received $10.9 million from the zinc mine in 2007. The borough gave Palin a whale baleen basket valued at $300.
Chamberlain, the ex-wife of an influential former state lawmaker, said in an interview that she was unaware of her clients giving gifts to the Palins.
Under the new ethics laws, Palin may not accept lobbyist gifts unless the lobbyist is a family member. The governor explains in detail in her disclosure how she reimbursed Chamberlain for a summer trip made by Palin's 14-year-old daughter, Willow. Willow is friends with Chamberlain's teenage daughter, Mackenzie. Chamberlain said Willow accompanied her and her daughter in the summer of 2007 to a basketball camp and then to Mexico.
"This is not a gift," reads a handwritten note on Palin's disclosure form. "It is merely interaction with a parent who is registered as a lobbyist with the state of Alaska."
Chamberlain said she kept trip receipts to ensure that the Palins could reimburse her. The lobbyist said she has been careful around Palin in government settings.
"Because our kids are together quite a bit, people made the assumption we are good buddies, but we aren't," she said. "I was a bit nervous of her, and I guess she was a bit nervous of me."
It was an unspoken rule that lobbyists should not directly approach Palin, Chamberlain said. The lobbyist said she had access to the governor's key staff members and she set up meetings for her clients. "I didn't have business conversations with her, because she didn't see lobbyists," Chamberlain said. "She preferred to see clients without lobbyists present."
Chamberlain also represents the Pebble Partnership, which has proposed a massive gold mine on Bristol Bay that has encountered opposition from conservationists. Palin has come under fire for speaking out against a statewide initiative, Proposition 4, that would have imposed costly environmental regulations on mining operations, particularly the Pebble Mine. A hearing by a state ethics watchdog agency has been scheduled for mid-November to see whether statutes prohibiting partisan activity apply to the governor's statements on the initiative.
Mining interests did not play a major fundraising role in Palin's gubernatorial campaign, but post-election donations to her inaugural committee came from four mining companies, including Northern Dynasty, the Pebble Mine co-developer. The money was spent on inaugural balls and on travel by the governor and her family for events. The amounts were not disclosed.
Palin also reported receiving $1,000 in gifts -- an Aleut woven basket, a sea otter headband, a Tlingit rattle and an Athabascan chief necklace -- at an inaugural reception thrown by the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Executives of several of Chamberlain's clients serve on the center's board and many were in attendance when the gifts were presented to the governor.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.