Village corporation leaders in the Bristol Bay region reacted angrily the week of Sept. 16 to remarks made by Rep. Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks Republican, suggesting that Northern Dynasty Mines paid area Native leaders, business owners and elected officials to support the Pebble Mine project.
Ramras recently visited the Pebble project as a guest of Northern Dynasty. He said he arranged a trip to some of the local villages in an effort “to see the other side of the story.” What he observed compelled him to write the U.S. Attorney’s office in Anchorage and the Alaska Attorney General’s office about his concerns that the developer may be bribing Southwest Alaska Native leaders to support the Pebble Mine project.
The Pebble Project, which is located about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, was acquired by Northern Dynasty in 2001. Since then, extensive drilling has shown that Pebble could be developed into a world-class mine, capable of producing 67.3 billion pounds of copper, 81.7 billion ounces of gold, and 4 billion pounds of molybdenum. The project also lies in the Bristol Bay watershed, home to one of the world’s largest salmon fisheries.
Ramras implies improprietiesIn one letter, Ramras asked the Attorney General’s office to send a representative to a public hearing being held in the area concerning House Bill 134, a bill co-sponsored by Ramras. The measure relates to the protection of wild salmon in the Bristol Bay area, and would seriously impede, if not prohibit, any mineral or oil and gas development in the area.
But Ramras fell short of accusing Northern Dynasty of involving itself in illegal activities. “There appears to be a lack of transparency, and at the very least a lack of decency,” in the way this debate is being waged,” he wrote.
Sean Magee, Northern Dynasty’s vice president of public affairs, said that the allegations were “baseless,” and it was irresponsible for Ramras to make them without evidence.
Ramras went on to compare what he observed in southwestern Alaska to the corruption accusations in the Alaska State Legislature, now under investigation.
“I am deeply troubled as the sitting chair of the House Judiciary Committee to learn of such impropriety,” he wrote.
“Villagers from around the Pebble project were invited and flown to Anchorage, were hosted with overnight accommodations at the Sheraton (Anchorage Hotel), and were provided with $600 in cash.”
Magee admitted that village leaders had been transported to Anchorage to attend educational meetings, but they were generally compensated $200 per day for their time away from work.
“All this is fully disclosed,” he said. “This is not money that is passing under the table.”
Ramras further alleged that local business owners, some of whom hold public office, are receiving payments of “up to $25,000 per month.”
“I heard stories of elected officials of governing municipalities. Sometimes these elected officials were, and sometimes these officials were not, simultaneously directors of regional corporations and/or village corporations,” he wrote.
These elected officials included owners of aviation companies and bed & breakfasts or boarding houses “who are enjoying payments of up to $25,000 per month. Sometimes these facilities are far from the mine site. And I believe some of these owners/elected officials testified before the House Resources committee on Pebble Mine related issues in this dual capacity without disclosing this important conflict of interest during the 24th Alaska State Legislature, of which I was the House Resources co-chairman, Ramras wrote.
In a Sept. 20 letter to Ramras, Magee said Northern Dynasty was disappointed by his unwillingness to discuss his concerns with the company when they first came to his attention. “Instead, you chose to politicize this non-issue in a public forum,” he wrote
Magee also invited Ramras to discuss any concerns he has on the matter with the company.
Village leaders angryLeaders of area village corporations, Bristol Bay villages, and Native corporations reacted angrily to Ramras’ allegations.
In a Sept. 17 statement, Bristol Bay-area Native corporation and village leaders denounced Ramras’ suggestions that their activities were similar to those of state lawmakers and other Alaskans currently caught up in “corruption scandals and trials taking place on a daily basis in Alaska.”
Ralph Angasan, Sr., president of Alaska Peninsula Corp., demanded that Ramras retract his statements.
Northern Dynasty is providing jobs and employment opportunities for their shareholders, Angasan said.
“We have people employed as technicians, drillers, helpers, cooks, cleaning people, bus drivers, mechanics, carpenters, observers and scientists. These are real, honest-to-goodness jobs that are helping our people, and maybe that is something that Rep. Ramras cannot understand,” Angasan said.
“Ramras is pimping for the rich and powerful who want to use our lands for summer playgrounds and leave our people with no economy,” said Raymond Apokedak, president of Levelock Natives Ltd.
Lisa Reimers of Iliamna Development Corp. also denied the allegations of bribery. “We have not taken a position in support of the project - we have taken a position in support of due process,” she said. “Any funds that have been provided to Iliamna Natives Ltd. and Iliamna Development Corp. by Northern Dynasty were as a result of work performed by our corporations and individuals who have a documented track record with respect to work on this project.”
“Not one of us has ever taken a bribe, and that is a huge difference between us and the Alaska Legislature,” Angasan added.
The group said the comments were defamatory and they are exploring their legal options.
Ramras’ motives in questionRamras, who is on record opposing the Pebble project, warned a group of miners at a breakfast in mid-December of last year that Bob Gillam, owner of McKinley Capital and one of Pebble’s staunchest adversaries, plans to bring a mining tax initiative before voters. Ramras urged the crowd to make peace with Gillam.
When asked, Ramras said, he thought that the miners did not take his warning seriously, and they were underestimating their adversary.
Later that month Ramras invited Gillam to a holiday celebration in Fairbanks. At the event, Gillam presented a $10,000 check to Santa’s Clearing House, and gave a matching donation to some local education programs, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Gillam also reportedly made a $1,000 contribution to Ramras’ election campaign as did McKinley Capital’s general manager, Diane Wilke.
Also, members of anti-Pebble group, The Renewable Resource Coalition - Richard Jameson, Art Hackney, and Brian Kraft - each contributed $100 to Ramras’ campaign.
“We believe that Rep. Ramras should not be swayed by political contributions or personal relationships,” Iliamna Development’s Reimers said Sept. 20.
But Ramras maintains that his position on Pebble is not influenced by his friendship with Gillam.
APC files restraining orderOn behalf of the Alaska Peninsula Corp., Anchorage attorney Sam Fortier filed a lawsuit and sought a restraining order Sept. 24 against Ramras, Alaska Attorney General Talis J. Colberg and the Alaska Department of Public Safety. A Dillingham Superior Court judge denied the restraining order later the same day.
If there needed to be an investigation into the bribery allegations, Fortier argued that it should not coincide with public hearings to be held in the Bristol Bay on HB 134 because it would intimidate area residents and inhibit them from speaking out against the legislation.
An affidavit by Angasan was included in the order filed by Fortier. “Ramras’ demand to investigate our thoughts and concerns is chilling the ability of our people to speak at the hearings,” Angasan wrote.
Judge Fred Torrisi ruled that the restraining order was too broad, and no one’s free speech rights had yet been violated. The lawsuit still stands.