July 18, 2005 – A well-connected tax-exempt group intent on opening a protected part of Alaska for resource exploitation reimbursed a trip made by an official from that state to lobby for a resolution by Republican governors in favor of drilling, a watchdog organization revealed last week.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that monitors government corruption, said a so-called "527" organization, Alaska to America Energy Initiative, reimbursed the travel expenses of a trip Kris Knauss made to the November 2004 Republican Governors Association in New Orleans. Knaus is Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski's policy director.
At the conference, Knauss presented a resolution to attending governors that they back developing oil and gas on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Murkowski, formerly one of Alaska's long-serving senators, has been a vocal proponent of opening up the Refuge for oil and gas companies, despite environmentalistsâ€™ predictions that doing so could irreparably harm the unique region.
The Center also says that Knauss only filed a gift disclosure form for the reimbursement when CPI made a request from the state for documentation in June, seven months after Knauss' trip.
A state ethics officer reviewed the trip and reclassified it as a gift to the state of Alaska, noting the state "historically... has paid" for officials to attend the Republican Governors Association, and could have been taken care of the trip with state funds.
According to CPI, Knauss has since left the governor's office for the private sector.
Registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt organization, a 527 -- nicknamed after the section of the US tax code under which such groups fall -- is a special interest advocacy group. Though a 527 may accept unlimited amounts of money from donors and may spend as much as it sees fit on its issue of choice, it must remain independent of the political establishment, and is not allowed to coordinate efforts with candidates or campaigns.
According to the group's tax filing, the objective of Alaska to America Energy Initiative is to "inform and educate about the importance of obtaining energy for the nation from Alaska, and support candidates who support that goal." The group's contributors include a number of deep-pocketed regional players, whose donations to the Initiative can be written off on their taxes.
The Refuge encompasses a stretch of nearly 20 million acres in Northern Alaska. Eight million acres are designated as "wilderness," meant to be unused for resource and mineral development, while the rest is known as "minimal management."
Many energy companies and their political patrons in and out of Alaska say exploiting the Refuge for oil and gas will provide a cushion for a looming energy crisis and a way to wean the US from foreign sources.
But opponents counter that tapping the Refuge would be disastrous for the many species of fish and wildlife living there, as well as for neighboring indigenous bands. They argue that relatively low yields from the region would make a relatively small and temporary dent in the nationâ€™s energy needs and could never offset upsetting the Refuge ecosystem with wells and the accompanying infrastructure.