Jahna Lindemuth has been Alaska’s acting attorney general since the sudden exit of Gov. Bill Walker’s first attorney general, Craig Richards, in 2016.
But her confirmation is less than certain.
In fact, this is a high-risk month for Lindemuth. She’s been walking through the Capitol legislative offices, talking with lawmakers who hold her future in their hands. She’s counting votes.
She doesn’t have them yet.
Lindemuth needs 31 votes for confirmation. She’ll get the House Democrat majority — 22, and the Senate Democrat minority — 4.
That means she needs to lock down five more green buttons when she faces the joint confirmation vote to be named the State’s top law officer and Gov. Walker’s attorney.
But before she faces that joint vote, Lindemuth has to head back to the Senate Judiciary Committee room, where her hearing will have been hung up for over month.
When she went before Senate Judiciary on March 9, lawmakers asked her about her closed-door settlement with Ahtna Corp. over road access to Klutina Lake. They sent her back to think about who she represents in this case. Senate President Pete Kelly of Fairbanks told her he was not comfortable with what he had heard from her so far.
Her next committee hearing will be Wednesday at 1:30 pm in Senate Judiciary. The public will be queued up to testify, and word on the street is they have a lot to say. Interest is higher than normal for an AG confirmation, although Walker’s last one, Craig Richards, also faced a grilling two years ago.
WHO IS LINDEMUTH’S TOP CLIENT?
The Alaska Outdoor Council and the Fairbanks Laundry House Gang have raised questions about whether Lindemuth really stands for the people of Alaska, or a private corporation who had given the governor a big campaign assist in 2014.
Now, Walker is directing his acting attorney general to give away a federally guaranteed right-of-way to Athna. The road was established in 1898. It has been perhaps the most important state road access right-of-way to defend for many years. It’s an area popular with Alaska outdoors enthusiasts — fishers, campers and boaters.
The case file on Klutina Road is hundreds of pages deep with documentation from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Law, which has fought for the access that is cryptically called RS-2477.
RS-2477 allows the public to stop, park, pick berries, gather firewood, camp, launch a boat, and swat mosquitoes.
Ahtna Corp. sued the State of Alaska about nine years ago and the case was to go to trial this month, when Lindemuth filed a pleading with the court to stay the case so she could negotiate a settlement.
What Ahtna wants is to control access for its shareholders and put limitations on the access rights of other Alaskans.
Lindemuth is negotiating down the access to something called a 17-b easement, which prohibits many of those public recreational activities and reduces the width of the right-of-way substantially.
However, no one outside the lawyers for the Department of Law knows what the terms of the settlement are, because it’s being done in secret.
And that’s one of the sticking points for outdoor advocates: Public access is being settled behind closed doors.
When asked by the Senate Judiciary Committee why she was negotiating away the public’s rights, Lindemuth said she had to decide whether or not to pursue the case and it was her judgment — and her right — as attorney general to settle. She was looking for a “win-win.” Sen. Pete Kelly told her he wanted a “win,” not a “win-win.”
Late last month, Gov. Walker bent to public pressure and issued a statement saying that the settlement terms would include a full 100-foot right-of-way “and opportunities for fishing, camping and boating.”
The Alaska Outdoor Council says that these are uses already protected by RS-2477, and it is leery of any agreement to limit those rights.
Walker also said that the settlement would provide “multiple areas along Klutina Lake Road…where the public can fish and launch boats into the river.”
The Alaska Outdoor Council argues that those rights are covered already under RS-2477.
Walker promised: “Areas will be provided for camping and overnight parking and any fee Ahtna charges must be reasonable and similar to fees charged in State campgrounds.”
But a 2002 opinion by the Attorney General’s office stated: “Ahtna has no legal authority to regulate the highway by requiring the purchase of permits or the payment of tolls or by prohibiting historic uses of the road by corporate fiat.”
TOGIAK CASE MAY RAISE ITS HEAD
Since Lindemuth’s somewhat contentious hearing on March 9, another case has arisen that may capture the interest of Senate Judiciary:
In the village of Togiak this week, a non-Native resident was bound with duct tape and put on a plane, banished from the community. There was no due process for the man, who operates an inn and was accused by tribal members of bringing alcohol into the village.
Tribal justice is something the Walker Administration has supported, including allowing communities to banish tribal members when they choose.
But for a village to banish a nonmember of a tribe? That raises constitutional questions, which committee members will want addressed by the attorney general. The Togiak man in question has hired an attorney who told the Alaska Dispatch News that the man’s constitutional rights had been violated.
Public testimony will be heard on Wednesday, April 12 at 1:30 at the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing for acting AG Lindemuth. Alaskans may testify from their nearby Legislative Information Offices or call in their testimony (be prepared to wait) at 844-586-9086.