Friends and Family Discount


As you probably know, on Monday TPMmuckraker’s Laura McGann broke the story of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) sweetheart land deal with a big Alaska political contributor, Bob Penney, who’s also involved in the investigation of fellow Sen. Stevens (R-AK). It’s what everyone seems to be talking about in Alaska today and perhaps soon in Washington too.

Yesterday the Anchorage Daily News picked up Laura’s story. And at this point it’s really quite clear that Murkowski got an illegal gift to the tune of possibly $150,000. Perhaps a bit less, but possibly a bit more. One way or another it seems pretty clear that Penney sold her this piece of choice riverfront land (where there seems to be amazing fishing — believe me, I’m jealous) for about half price.

So today I’m reading the ADN’s follow-up in which Murkowski and various pals try to explain away what happened.

Here’s what one defender, Buzz Kyllonen, tells the paper. “They’ve been friends with Penney for years and years and years, and he probably said, ‘I’ll sell for a whole lot less than I would somebody walking down the street.”

Well, okay, I think I can probably sign on for that explanation too.

But Penney’s explanation was even better. From the ADN

Penney said Wednesday that the land had not been for sale but he offered it because he wanted Murkowski and her family as neighbors. On Thursday Murkowski reiterated that they were old friends.

Imagine that, a politically-wired Alaska moneyman wants the state’s junior senator to live next door to him. Who can question that?

Now, Murkowski says they’re old friend; they go back to grade school or something. But remember, Murkowski inherited her senate seat (though she subsequently won it in her own right) from her pop, Frank Murkowski, who was senator from 1980 to 2002 and a big player in state politics for another decade before that. So for Lisa, being pals with someone since way before she became senator doesn’t mean the same thing as it woud for an ordinary mortal.

In any case, here’s how Murkowski says it all came down …

She said the family sold its house in Anchorage because her sons will be leaving for school and she and her husband wanted to be on the Kenai, a river whose salmon first drew Martell to Alaska. When she mentioned that to Penney, she said, he offered the lot.

“And I remember saying, ‘Oh yeah, but I can’t buy a lot from you. I know you,'” she said. “And he said, ‘Lisa, you know everybody in the state.”

Good gracious. So apparently, Murkowski knew there was a problem buying the land from Penney. But he reassured her that Alaska was a small state and she knew everyone. So it wasn’t a problem. Sort of like he gave her a quick impromptu ethics advisory. And then they agreed he’d sell it to her for half price.

It helps to have a lot of friends.

Anyway, there are a few other wrinkles to this story. This hasn’t gotten into our reporting that much. But while Laura was reporting on this story over the last few weeks one thing that came up was a series of very weird little details about Murkowski’s disclosure reports. Some things that were supposed to be disclosed about this deal weren’t. Then on forms where she did disclose there were valuation sections that happened for some reason not to be checked. Then where a date was supposed to be listed a key digit was left off, which made it impossible to know when the transaction had occurred. Taken in total, each individual snafu could be written off as a mistake. But taken together, they made it virtually impossible to see what had happened unless you independently knew exactly what to look for.

From an editor’s perspective it was a bit hard to know how to treat this. You don’t want to go too far out on a thin reed dealing with what could be mere errors in filling out the form. Knowing what we know now though I don’t think there’s much question that Murkowski knew this purchase was a big problem and the forms were filled out or not filled out in such a way as to kick up as much dust as possible.