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Originally published Wednesday, October 4, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Alaska probe turns from oil to fish

FBI agents investigating Alaska legislators have expanded their interests from oil to fish, looking at the relationship between state Senate...

Seattle Times staff reporter

FBI agents investigating Alaska legislators have expanded their interests from oil to fish, looking at the relationship between state Senate President Ben Stevens and the North Pacific seafood industry, which has deep roots in Puget Sound.

In late August, the FBI searched the offices of Stevens and at least five other Alaska legislators and gathered documents relating to Veco, a major oil-field services company that had been heavily involved in lobbying the Legislature on oil-tax policies and other energy issues. FBI agents returned to Stevens' office for a second search Sept. 18.

This time, their take included two letters that Stevens wrote to the federal Commerce Department about the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, according to a letter outlining the searches that Stevens provided to the Anchorage Daily News.

Stevens has not disclosed what was in those fisheries letters or any of the other documents taken in the searches.

Stevens chaired the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board until earlier this year. It was created in 2003 with federal legislation sponsored by his father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

The board has awarded more than $12 million in federally-funded grants to salmon-processing companies, most of them based in Puget Sound.

Some of those companies who received marketing-board funds — either directly or through related companies or industry groups — also paid the younger Stevens consulting fees. Those payments included more than $250,000 in the years Ben Stevens served on the board, according to disclosure documents filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

During the Sept. 18 search, FBI agents also obtained an affidavit written to the commission by a Friday Harbor salmon fisherman, Victor Smith, who has been a sharp critic of Ben Stevens.

Smith has alleged in fishing-industry articles and affidavits that Ben Stevens took money from a seiners association to lobby his father and did not disclose that income as required by state disclosure reports.

During the visit, the FBI also took "unknown" documents of Ted Stevens' and one document faxed from Ben Stevens to his father, according to Ben Stevens' letter in the Anchorage Daily News.

The FBI investigation has involved agents from around the country who assisted in the searches, said Eric Gonzalez, a FBI spokesman in Alaska.

U.S. Justice Department attorneys based in Washington, D.C., with the Public Integrity Section, which handles political corruption, also have joined the case, along with two U.S. assistant attorneys in the Alaska office, said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman.

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Both Ben and Ted Stevens on Friday declined to comment on the FBI investigation.

"We don't believe it's appropriate to comment on factual questions that may be related in any way to a possible investigation of the subject matter," said John Wolfe, a Seattle attorney representing Ben Stevens.

Ted Stevens, in an e-mail to The Seattle Times, said, "I understand the public's interest in the investigation. It has always been my practice to not comment on such matters to avoid even the appearance that I might influence the investigation. That is especially important in this case where records have been obtained from a number of legislators, including my son Ben."

Ties to fishing industry

Both son and father have long associations with the North Pacific fishing industry, which is the nation's largest and involves many Puget Sound processors and fishermen.

Ted Stevens has spent more than three decades in the U.S. Senate, where he has been influential in shaping fisheries policies and funding.

Ben Stevens is a former Bering Sea crab skipper who was a federal lobbyist in the late 1990s before returning to Alaska to launch a consulting practice that included numerous seafood-industry clients.

In annual state disclosure filings, Ben Stevens wrote that his clients hired him for business services. He has not listed any lobbying fees.

The younger Stevens has served in the state Senate since 2001 but is not running for re-election.

In 2003, when the Alaska salmon industry pleaded for help to face growing competition from commercial fish farmers, both son and father lent a hand.

Ted Stevens crafted federal legislation to form the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. The board gives grants, raised from a federal tax on seafood imports, to help companies develop and market their products.

Ben Stevens became the board's first chairman, a volunteer position that he held until earlier this year. As chairman, he helped approve grants that in fiscal years 2004 and 2005 totaled more than $12 million and were awarded to dozens of seafood companies.

Some of the biggest grants went to major Puget Sound-based seafood companies, including Icicle Seafoods, which received more than $1.5 million; Peter Pan Seafoods, which received more than $1.55 million; Trident Seafoods, which received more than $1.3 million, and Yardarm Knot Fisheries, which received more than $227,000. Some of that money was awarded on the basis of how much salmon was processed, and some resulted from grant applications submitted to the board.

These companies also paid Ben Stevens as a consultant either directly, through related companies or through industry groups such as the North Pacific Crab Association.

Officials for all five of the seafood companies and the executive director of the marketing board declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Ben Stevens disclosed all his payments from the processing companies on disclosure forms filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. But he did not disclose his chairmanship of the fisheries board to that commission, as required by state law, until after a complaint was filed, according to the commission staff.

Ben Stevens has not reported receiving any income for consulting or lobbying work on behalf of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, a group that in 2004 sought help from Ted Stevens for legislation that would finance a buyout of some of the fleet. The legislation was approved by Congress, but the buyout has yet to occur.

Smith, the Friday Harbor salmon fisherman, said in an affidavit filed with the state commission that a contract paying Ben Stevens $5,000 a month to consult and lobby on behalf of that bill was openly discussed at a 2004 fishermen's meeting in Lynnwood. Others have said the money was paid to a partnership that included Ben Stevens.

The Alaska commission staff is now investigating whether he received money and should have reported it on state disclosure forms.

Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich and researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

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