By ERIKA BOLSTAD and RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News
August 04, 2007
Federal investigators are looking into earmarks that the state's senior senator steered to the research and tourist attraction near Seward's waterfront.
They are specifically focusing on a $1.6 million Stevens-driven allocation to the SeaLife Center, which spent $558,000 of the money to buy a lot owned by lobbyist and former Stevens aide Trevor McCabe last year.
Investigators with the Inspector General's office of the U.S. Interior Department have spoken to National Park Service employees in Alaska about the purchase, said Marcia Blaszak, the Alaska regional director for the Park Service. Originally, parks officials wanted McCabe's lot for a visitor center, but balked at his asking price.
Blaszak said it's "an ongoing investigation and I'm not discussing the particulars" of what investigators were in search of. But she did say it was connected to the SeaLife Center purchase, and that local Park Service employees were cooperating with the investigation.
McCabe, who worked for Stevens from 1991 to 1999, did not return a phone message left at his Anchorage law office. His lawyer also did not return a message left with his assistant.
Stevens has long been a benefactor of the SeaLife Center, sending more than $50 million in federal money to the private nonprofit since it opened in 1998.
The investigation adds to the list of federal inquiries that involve specific actions Stevens may have taken in Congress. Last summer, the FBI raided the offices of Stevens' son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens. In their raid, FBI agents seized documents involving the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, which was created in 2003 in legislation by the elder Stevens to provide federal grants to companies to promote Alaska seafood.
Monday, federal law enforcement agents raided Stevens' home in Girdwood, hauling off undisclosed items from inside and taking extensive pictures and video inside and out.
Federal investigators and grand juries in Anchorage and Washington, D.C., have been seeking information about a 7-year-old remodeling project at the house. The project more than doubled the size of the house and was overseen by Veco Corp. CEO Bill Allen. In May, Allen pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers and agreed to cooperate with authorities in further corruption probes. Veco vice president Richard Smith has also pleaded guilty to identical charges. Allen and Smith resigned from Veco.
It's not clear whether the FBI's investigation into Veco is connected to the investigation into the Seward land transaction. The Washington Post reported that the FBI is working with the Interior Department on the SeaLife Center deal.
But the land deal first piqued the interest of federal investigators after an April 2006 article in the Daily News detailed the transaction and the resulting community uproar.
McCabe, a Seward native who is now a high-profile fishing lobbyist, was looking for a buyer for the Arcade Building, a rundown waterfront property that had housed a pawn shop. McCabe bought the Arcade in 2003, when the National Park Service was looking for downtown land to build a new $20 million visitor center. Kenai Fjords National Park is nearby.
The federal government eventually bought several other parcels, including a second one McCabe owned. But negotiations reached a dead end in July 2005 after the government balked at McCabe's asking price.
A month later, Stevens used his power over congressional appropriations to transfer all $1.6 million left in the visitor center's land-purchase fund to the SeaLife Center. The move surprised officials with the city of Seward, which had been slated to receive the money.
The SeaLife Center then agreed to spend $558,000 of the federal windfall to buy the Arcade building from McCabe and his partner, Dale Lindsey, a Seward businessman.
At the time, Stevens' office and the SeaLife Center said the money was diverted and spent to help the marine facility as well as to revitalize downtown Seward. They said it was not to bail out McCabe.
But the transaction opened a rift between the SeaLife Center and city.
Richard Mauer can be reached at rmauer(at)adn.com
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