U.S. Senators, Just Like You and Me

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Bob Penney don’t get what the big deal is. If two people reach a property deal, what’s the problem? (Even if the price is possibly $120,000 below market value, the seller is a major campaign contributor tied to the federal probe in the state and the buyer is a U.S. senator.)

In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Penney couldn’t wrap his head around it.

“I really can’t understand why a U.S. senator can’t buy something they want just like anybody else can,” he said.

A few weeks ago, Murkwoski’s spokeswoman shared a similar sentiment when explaining why the transaction was no where to be seen on her Senate disclosure forms. “She bought this for personal use just like millions of other people,” Danielle Holland said.

Here’s the difference: unlike the rest of us, U.S. Senators cannot accept gifts worth more than $250. Based on the $179,400 Murkowski paid for the wooded lot versus the $300,000 locals and real estate agents say the land is worth, she received a gift of at least $120,000. An editorial in the Anchorage Daily News today said she could have only paid a third of what Penney could have fetched had he listed it.

Penney, a major real estate and land developer denied that this was a campaign contribution or a gift, both when I spoke with him and in his statements to Alaska press. He also claims he had no idea that when he sold the land to Murkowski it was assessed by the local government at $179,400. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I called the Kenai Assessor’s Office today to see when owners are notified of their land’s new value. Penney would have received a notice March 1, 2006, nine months before the sale went through.

Other members of Congress can attest to the legal headache of accepting illegal gifts, like Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA). One of Cunningham’s most famous bribes was a property deal where he sold his house for well above market value to a defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, who dumped it for $700,000 soon after.

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) has also gotten into hot water over questionable land deals. So has Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV). Mollohan is under federal investigation because of his appetite for land deals with sellers who benefited from his many earmarks.