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ANC reform: Alaska natives battle for change

In an interview, another reformer, Margie Brown, president and chief executive of Cook Inlet Region, said that federal contracting is a great tool but that the ability to get unlimited contracts without competition has unintended consequences. Brown and the other reformers said in an op-ed piece that ran in the Anchorage Daily News: "We understand that not everyone in our community will agree with our proposal, but improving [the program] is the right thing to do."

The proposals go beyond a measure approved as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2010 - the Pentagon's budget - which requires a written justification from agencies that awarded no-bid deals worth more than $20 million.

For its part, the SBA, which oversees Alaska native corporations, is formulating rules that will require the companies to be more open about how federal contracts benefit native shareholders and will limit the work performed by joint-venture partners. Those rules are expected to take effect early next year.

An unlikely set of allies has joined the reformers.

In an interview, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the most adamant ANC boosters, applauded the idea of more transparency and accountability.

"In order to continue the good for which this program was intended, we have to pursue the reforms that allow for appropriate oversight," she said. "I have defended this program, but I do not defend the program unconditionally."

Shay Assad, the top procurement official at the Pentagon, which has awarded more contracts to ANCs without competition than any other government agency, said, "What I want to do is take a totally different approach to this contracting methodology."

Assad said that ANCs and government officials need to be more open about the deals they strike and scale back the number of contracts awarded without competition. The government also ought to find ways to award more contracts that create jobs in Alaska for native shareholders, he said.

"I know that the taxpayers get a better deal when we compete," he said. "We need to make a huge course correction."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of a contracting oversight subcommittee that held the ANC hearing last year, said the contracting privileges ought to be rescinded altogether.

"If you really understand what is going on with Alaska native corporations, your heart breaks for the many poor natives who are suffering still. They're being used," she said. "Two groups of people are getting screwed by the program. Many Alaska natives who are not getting their fair share, and the American taxpayers."

She suggested that the government make direct payments to the native shareholders. "I would much prefer that the American government help Alaska natives directly than through ridiculously over-priced, noncompete government contracts," she said.

Sheri Buretta, chairman of the board of the Chugach Corp., said that the government needs to keep giving ANCs room to improve and grow.

"There's no doubt in my mind there are abuses," she said. Until now, native executives have been afraid to speak up because of fears "it will be used against us."

"We're trying as hard as we can," she said. "It's an evolutionary process."

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