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Salmon ad on jet lures federal fund questions
Anchorage Daily News


October 07, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, created by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens in 2003, made a big splash this week with a high-profile project: a $500,000 grant to Alaska Airlines, mostly to paint a giant king salmon on one of its jetliners.

But what else the marketing board has bought with the $29 million in federal funds it has received isn't so clear.

The law that created the board says AFMB must submit an annual report detailing its expenditures to the secretary of commerce. But the board's executive director, Bill Hines, said he is not allowed to release the report to the public.

"A lot of that information is confidential and proprietary," he said.

The board's chairman is state Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, who did not return telephone calls Wednesday.

His father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, created the board in a 2003 appropriations bill, saying he wanted to help Alaska seafood compete against imported farm-raised stocks. The state's commercial salmon industry was in crisis, with a value that had plunged 73 percent in a decade. The board was one of several initiatives aimed at reviving the industry.

Sen. John McCain, a regular critic of special funding programs Ted Stevens establishes for Alaska, took a shot at the marketing board when it was up for its second $10 million appropriation.

"Is there something wrong with these fish that warrants such an expensive program to convince us to eat them?" the Arizona Republican asked during debate last year.

The board's structure, as Stevens established it in federal law, is unusual. The board is an independent nonprofit, and its members are appointed by the commerce secretary. Hines, the director, remains an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The board's money - about $10 million a year - comes from something called the Saltonstall-Kennedy Fund. The fund is derived from duties on imported fish and awards grants to develop American fisheries.

The Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board hasn't produced an annual report for public review, Hines said.

It also has no official Web site, he said. Some of its meetings have been open to the public, he said, but the locations and meeting times aren't advertised.

Hines did, however, provide a PowerPoint presentation that gave a general accounting of the board's budget. The bulk of the money, $12 million, has gone to salmon processors, and more than half of that has gone to the processing titans: Ocean Beauty, Peter Pan, Icicle, Trident.

Hines said the board took a new "performance-based" approach with salmon marketing. Rather than award grants based on merit of individual proposals, the board offered grants based on the amount of salmon each processor had bought.

"It's all based on the amount of fish purchased, so the more you purchase, the more you get," he said.

The grants, though, do come with restrictions.

"They have to submit a proposal for how they would spend that money, and that proposal has to do with marketing," Hines said.

Grantees have to file reports, which the board scrutinizes, he said. Information provided to the board is often sensitive, he said, because companies wouldn't want competitors to know their plans.

The Daily News has filed a formal request for the report from the Commerce Department and is awaiting a response.

The site contains information about the organization.

"It's not an official Web site. It should not be launched," Hines said when asked about it Tuesday. On Wednesday, the site was carrying a red disclaimer saying it was under construction and that "none of the information contained herein has been approved as official content."

The site listed the agency's 11-member board of directors and gave a partial breakdown of entities that received grants and for how much, although it doesn't say what the grants were for. The AFMB board includes representatives of seafood companies, fisheries groups, Carrs/Safeway, Lynden Transport and former Ted Stevens aide Trevor McCabe, who is a business partner with Ben Stevens.

The official location of the agency's office was also unclear. The bylaws on the unapproved Web site say the principal office is in Juneau, where Hines said he lives. Hines, though, said that the office is actually in downtown Anchorage and that the board pays for an apartment for him to stay in there. His business phone is his cell phone, he said, although the organization does have a phone in the Anchorage office.

He declined to disclose his salary, which is paid through the Department of Commerce. Hines said his board members do not receive salaries but are paid $500 per meeting, in addition to per-day expenses.

Ben Stevens, the board chairman, did not list his AFMB membership on his Alaska Public Offices Commission financial disclosure forms for the past two years. The APOC form requires legislators to list profit and nonprofit boards on which they serve. Stevens did list his membership on other nonprofit boards. He was appointed to the AFMB board in late 2003.

A spokeswoman for Ted Stevens said he recommended his son and other members of the marketing board to the commerce secretary for appointment, but she said the senator made his recommendations from a list Gov. Frank Murkowski sent.

The Alaska Airlines promotion is getting national attention, not all of it positive.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told ABC News this week that the money was a waste.

"I don't think anybody's going to buy Alaskan seafood because they see a fish on the side of an airplane," he said in a segment broadcast Wednesday on "World News Tonight."

Keith Ashdown, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, acknowledged the plane has a lot of "wow" factor. He e-mailed news of the publicly funded paint job, saying "We couldn't make this up if we tried."

Hines said the salmon jet has been a big hit. He called it a "flying billboard."

"It's advertising," he said. "For four to six years, we're going to have that plane flying our message."

In fact, he said, he the message may outlive the board.

"In light of what's going on today, with (Hurricane) Katrina, with Rita and other problems, I'm not optimistic that we're going to get another appropriation this year," he said.

The board was created when the market for Alaska fish was terrible, and it's now much better, he said.

"We have fulfilled our mission," he said. "We have run our course."


Daily News reporter Wesley Loy contributed to this story.

Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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