Bush appointees have connections to Alaska

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The newest appointees to President-elect George W. Bush's cabinet have Alaska connections.

Gale Norton, the former Colorado attorney general, was nominated Friday to be secretary of the Department of the Interior. But earlier this year, she did legal work on behalf of the Alaska Legislature to support the appeal of the Katie John subsistence lawsuit.

Anthony Principi, Bush's choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a former employee of U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski. Principi was Murkowski's staff director of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs when Murkowski was chairman from 1984-86.

Legislative leaders hired Norton to work on a legal brief supporting Gov. Tony Knowles' controversial appeal of the landmark Katie John subsistence lawsuit.

The 1995 Katie John ruling, named for an Athabascan elder denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River, established that the federal government had authority on most waters in Alaska to ensure subsistence rights for rural residents.

The ruling greatly expanded the geographic scope of the federal government's authority in Alaska. When the Legislature refused to amend the state's constitution to allow the rural subsistence priority, federal authorities took over last year.

That allowed a federal judge to issue a final judgment in the Katie John case, clearing the way for another appeal to the Ninth Circuit and possibly a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state contends Congress did not intend for federal agencies to usurp the state's sovereignty over its waters.

Knowles' decision to appeal drew fire from Alaska Native groups who view the Katie John ruling as a key protection for subsistence fishing rights. Knowles has said Alaska is appealing the decision not because the state is against subsistence rights for Natives, but because the state wants to manage its navigable waters.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in the past has criticized the Department of Law's handling of recent lawsuits and has frequently hired its own lawyers as a check on Knowles' Democratic administration. However, the legislators' role in hiring Norton also was criticized.

House Speaker Brian Porter and Senate President Drue Pearce authorized $160,000 for a brief by Norton and Paul Lenzini, a Virginia attorney specializing in fish and wildlife issues, without consulting the rest of the Legislature.

The Legislative Council, a committee that acts for the Legislature between sessions, retroactively approved the contract.

Democrats on the council voted against the approval and said no one in their party had been consulted about the money.

Porter, R-Anchorage, said afterward the contract wasn't debated with the rest of the state's budget this spring because work needed to begin on the brief immediately and a majority of lawmakers supported the appeal anyway. A few weeks later, lawmakers approved a budget for the Legislature that increased the amount available for contractual services by about $500,000, according to figures from the Legislative Finance Division.

The secret contract signing avoided what would likely have been a bitter fight.

Murkowski praised the choice of Principi for the Veterans Affairs Department and said the decision was great for Alaska veterans.

''I brought Tony to Alaska several times when he served on my staff,'' Murkowski said. ''He is well known among Alaska's veterans and is personally familiar with the unique challenges they face.''

Principi is a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran who in 1989 served as the first deputy secretary of the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs.

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