Kangaroo court: Committee tries to sink Fish Board nominee - Must Read Alaska
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Kangaroo court: Committee tries to sink Fish Board nominee

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The retired Alaska Superior Court judge was no doubt ready for the barrage of heavy fire he took in the combined House Fisheries/Natural Resources Committee meeting on Monday night.

Karl Johnstone knew coming into his interview that the commercial fishing interests were loaded for bear in opposition of his nomination to the Fisheries Board, a volunteer position. And the committee was stacked with opponents of Gov. Michael Dunleavy who had had targeted him.

And yet Johnstone was courteous, open, and answered the committee’s accusatory questions fully, without rancor.

If they were hoping to wear him down by “Kavanaughing” him, it didn’t work.

Karl Johnstone

Rep. Louise Stutes chaired the meeting. She had already, in written communications to her commercial fishing friends, declared all-out war on Johnstone’s nomination, saying she would do everything in her power to prevent him from being confirmed.

Stutes went so far as to read an anonymous letter into the record, opposing Johnstone. No one on the joint committee objected to her doing so, and she ruled the committee with an iron hand. She made exaggerated expressions during the meeting that Johnstone could not see, but which expressed disapproval or disbelief.

As a committee aide provided material to the attack team on the committee, they asked Johnstone questions they were given to ask. Some of the questions ended up embarrassing the committee members who asked them.

Rep. Sara Hannan wanted to know if Johnstone is a snowbird and how many days he spends in the state. Enough to qualify for a Permanent Fund dividend, Johnstone said. Hannan was trying to imply that having a second home out of state or traveling widely as a retiree should be a disqualifier.

Hannan asked if he took cost of living allowances in his retirement, and she expressed surprise to learn that COLA doesn’t apply to the retirement pensions of retired judges. Stutes’ staff had set her up to look unprepared.

Hannan wanted to know why in 2009 he stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel during the Fish Board meetings. He answered he stayed there because he was advised to stay there by Fish and Game. He was told it would be best if he was on site early and stayed late into the evening to interact with attendees.

[Read: State says per diem was proper]

Hannan wanted to know how much he had donated to the Dunleavy campaign. Johnstone had been an early supporter of the campaign of Charlie Huggins before Huggins dropped from the race, and then Johnstone supported Dunleavy. But he said none of that. To the committee he only said yes, he supported Dunleavy and donated to the political action committee that supported the candidacy of the governor who has since appointed him, and it was $1,000.

Hannan expressed to the committee that she felt that was a problem.

[Read: Top contributors to the Sara Hannan campaign.]

Rep. Geran Tarr implied, delicately, that Johnstone is too old to serve on the Board, and should spend more time “transitioning” and visiting his family. Tarr pondered aloud that he may have too much experience, since he has, in the past, served three terms on the Board of Fisheries. She said maybe it’s time for someone else to serve.

Tarr, who is often heard championing food security with Alaskans, then took up the cause of out-of-state commercial permit holders, rather than those rod-and-reel and dip netters from her own lower-income East Anchorage neighborhoods, who are trying to supplement their food budgets with fish from the rivers.

She said she was troubled that he seemed more concerned with personal use fishing than commercial fishing and that he was not acknowledging climate change as a factor in the changing fishing conditions in Alaska.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz wanted to know why, when Gov. Bill Walker nominated Roland Maw to the Fish Board in 2015, the board refused to interview him. She said she felt it was not very transparent.

[Read: New indictment on Roland Maw]

Spohnolz didn’t seem to know that Maw had subsequently been indicted on felony charges related to Alaska Permanent Fund dividend fraud and theft, including six felony counts of first-degree unsworn falsification and six felony counts of second-degree theft.

Johnstone politely didn’t bring that up, but said the entire board of seven had decided not to interview Maw, and they didn’t feel that giving a reason was productive.

[Read: Why the Board of Fish never interviewed Roland Maw]

Rep. Chris Tuck wanted to know Johnstone broke hiring rules when hiring a coroner 25 years ago. Johnstone said he was wrong to have done so, and he had been rightfully admonished for not following established procedures.

Rep. Stutes then wanted to know how many times Johnstone had attended the Kenai River Classics, a fundraiser started by Sen. Ted Stevens to support fisheries conservation. Johnstone said hadn’t been for six or seven years.

“Did you in the past?” she continued.

Yes, Johnstone said, but he only attended the dinner, which he paid for himself. He didn’t attend the fishing portion of the event.

Stutes wouldn’t let up: “Did you pay for all your expenses?”

Yes, Johnstone said, he drove to Kenai and back at his own expense.

The accusations kept coming like a firing squad. Stutes and her sisterhood on the committee were going to take him down.

Johnstone is, for United Fishermen of Alaska, their number one target. Both Israel Peyton and Marit Carlson Van Dort breezed through their confirmation interviews with barely a concern from the committee earlier in the evening.

The governor’s nominee for the Fisheries Board then was the subject of hours of testimony from the public. The sports fishing community praised him, while the commercial fishing community damned him. Chairwoman Stutes quickly cut off the testimony of his supporters, while allowing those who oppose him to go on for another 15 seconds past the 90-second limit she had set at the beginning.

At the end of the list of commenters came Roland Maw, but he told the committee that perhaps he’d just not have anything to say at this time.

Chairwoman Stutes then read a four-minute scripted statement about why she opposes Johnstone, reiterating many of the points provided by the United Fishermen of Alaska. She represents commercial fishing interests in Kodiak and Cordova.

The inquisition ended after four hours. Supporters of Johnstone complained that while they got their letters submitted in time, they were not added to the committee packet. But then again, it was never intended to be a fair meeting.

Johnstone’s nomination to the Fish Board will be considered by a joint session of the House and Senate on Wednesday. It’s considered to be close.

Have an opinion on the matter? The Kenai River Sports Fishing Association has a handy tool for sending your thoughts on Johnstone or the other nominees to all Alaska legislators. Try it here.

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Written by

Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Thanks, Knopp. Now we have Stutes chairing committees. Spohnolz, Tuck, Stutes, Hannan and Tarr all in the same article. I feel like I need a shower. The only one missing was LeDoux. This entire session is off the rails. Everyone is acting like children. Decorum anyone? Does it exist anymore?
    Really? Roland Maw was there on the list to comment? Has the world slipped off its axis? Do decorum AND no shame?

  • Blatant liberal/dim policy. For stutes to even ask Johnstone about a personal contribution to Governor Dunleavy, including “how much”, should disqualify her from, not only the committee, but from the entire hearing. The “hearing” results appear to have predetermined by stutes and her cronies. An absolute disgrace. Remember, no Alaskan heard one peep from any liberal/dim during any of walker’s appointee “hearings”. “Double standard” seems to be alive and well in the legislative committees that oppose any and all of Governor Dunleavy’s appointees. Their specious rhetoric is grounds to remove them from any and all positions of Alaskan “leadership”.

  • Suzanne, as a lifelong Alaskan, commercial fisherwoman and conservative I find this column biased against my industry that supports many coastal communities and is one of the most financially productive industries we have in Alaska. Even Anchorage has 9,000 commercial fisheries permits amongst the population. You might want to come to Homer and look at the businesses and talk to all the conservative fishermen before you write a column like this. The Board of Fish is supposed to be balanced and was in a good balance for all user groups. This nomination of Karl Johnstone was intended to change the entire balance of the Board against those of us who for generations in all coastal communities across Alaska have relied on fisheries. Please take the time to get to know those of us in the fisheries, many of whom actually read and support your column. Learn about the economics and about the people.

    • Oh, Sonja, so sorry that your “lifetime in Alaska” trumps mine and others “lifetime in Alaska”. You are the very type of Alaskan who is so deeply despised by other Alaskans, because of your closed-mindedness and arrogance. How about other industries from which Alaskan families have spent lifetimes developing? Miners, construction workers, forest product workers, oil-field workers. We are the backbone families of Alaska and we eat sport-caught fish during our limited vacation time. Living in Homer and killing fish for a living makes you no better than any other Alaskan. Quite being so ignorant and selfish.

    • Sonja, I’m a lifelong, multi-generation Alaskan speaking here. I come from a family of subsistence people and of commercial fishermen and a conservative…(is that a triple header?) fish joke… but I digress…
      I don’t read this article as Suzanne being biased against “your” industry at all. I see this article as pointing out the dysfunction and lack of complete respect that members of the House of Representatives have for a member of the community that wants to serve on the Board of Fish.
      The fact that YOU believe the nomination of Karl Johnstone was intended to change the entire balance of the Board against those who for generations in all coastal communities across Alaska have relied on fisheries, is what seems biased.

      • Great reply, Garnet.

    • Sonja,
      I question your logic when you say commercial fishing is “…the most financially productive industries we have in Alaska.”
      Maybe you are not aware of ALL the subsidies that are provided to comm fish people in AK?
      Low interest (State) loans on permits, vessels, overhauls and repairs…new nets and engines, etc.
      Then there are the state funded hatcheries throughout the state (I think there are over 25 presently).
      After all these subsidies, we still have state employees like biologists managing these fisheries as well as troopers paid to enforce laws and coast guard providing rescues when needed.
      “U.S. taxpayers doled out more than $6.4 billion in subsidies to the commercial fishing industry between 1996 and 2004, possibly accelerating the ongoing collapse of fish stocks worldwide and adding to the devastation of large ocean fish species.
      EWG’s calculations showed that fully 44 percent of federal and state subsidies between 1996 and 2004 went for fuel for fishing fleets. 
      Unlike motorists and truckers, commercial fishing operations are exempt from all federal and state fuel taxes and some state sales taxes on fuel. EWG found that these tax breaks were worth $2.8 billion to the fishing industry over the 1996-2004 period, or $314 million per year.”


      • Wow, Steve. Thanks for apprising us of the facts. Had no idea how the commercial fishing industry in Alaska, and commercial fisherwomen like Sonja, are so supported by corporate welfare. Beef and moose meat never tasted so good!

      • I just want to go put my worm in the water and catch a fish…..

      • Boy Steve, you can really reach at times.
        What does your EWG statistics on “fishing industry” as a whole have to do with Alaska Fishing?
        Further, there are no State funded hatcheries throughout the State. And about those Coast Guard rescues, they rescue anyone in need but you would have them not rescue fishermen?

    • Do you think we needs to do something about this: The state of Washington continues to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Alaska’s fishing industry.

      According to the United Fishermen of Alaska’s annual Fish Facts, Alaska’s seafood industry puts more people to work than any other private industry, topping 60,000 workers in 2015. Of that, less than half — 27,600 — were Alaska residents.

      And while 71 percent of active fishing permit holders call Alaska home, most of the gross earnings go to the state of Washington. Alaska resident fishing permit holders and crew made gross dockside earnings of just over $602 million two years ago. That compares to more than $904 million made by nearly 6,580 Washington-based fishermen.

      Harvesters from Oregon took home more than $126 million from Alaska’s fisheries and Californians pocketed nearly $28 million. That adds up to more than $1 billion flowing out of the state by non-resident fishermen.

      In terms of poundage, the 2015 harvest by Alaska residents is estimated at 1.4 billion pounds. For Washingtonians, that skyrockets to 4 billion pounds, driven by that state’s dominance in Alaska’s pollock and other whitefish sectors.

      A McDowell Group analysis revealed that total ex-vessel (dockside) income from Alaska fisheries two years ago was $1.8 billion. Fishermen earned the lion’s share at $920 million, or 38 percent of all direct labor income generated by the seafood industry. Or did I miss the point?

  • What? You mean the Democrats didn’t plant Carpeneti in the hearing room? Too bad. The room was wired in several places hoping to catch some more wacko Lefty ranting. What a waste of a hearing when all you have is an honest, straight-talking, retired judge testifying. It’s so much more fun to hear the crazed Democrats squealing away.

    • The wacko lefty ranting was the Chairwoman. Carpeneti got to sit this one out.

  • The not-so-soft Tyranny of Marxist Demoncrats and Trotskyite RINOs. When will the people wake up and fling these low-lives where they belong?

  • Sure seems like some hen pecking going on to me. I understand Stutes bias towards the commercial fishing point of view and representing her constituents, but the representatives from Anchorage make little sense. I suspect it has more to do with back scratching. The problem I have, as the articles points out, is that there is a total loss of decorum under this majority rule. It was the same under the last legislature, with the same majority leader. If, in fact, people are being denied their right to speak and others allowed to take extra time just because the chairperson agrees or disagrees then that is petty behavior on their part and a good (or even decent) majority leader would set the chairperson straight. The people in charge in the House have made a mockery of our legislature.

    • Steve-O, you have just described the workings of the State House for this legislative session. The most disjointed, disorganized bunch of fools Alaska has ever seen in a legislative body. IDIOTS ALL. When the regular session ends, dock 5 weeks of pay for House members, for their earliest failures, recall half of them immediately, then send the entire 40 of them to API for 120 days and lock down. Alaska would be well served.

      • That’s where they should hold the sessions, at API. They want to move them up here anyway. Jake Metcalfe can be the Sergeant at Arms.

        • LOL!!!!!

  • I have avoided fish politics most of my life. That said, the members of these two House committees need mental health services if they thought they had a chance of rattling a retired Superior Court judge like Mr. Johnstone. A judge like Karl Johnstone understands every question that is put to him, knows exactly what facts he knows and can assess a questioner’s intention in a heartbeat. If they were looking to “rough up” someone, they made the worst choice imaginable.

    • Isn’t that the truth, JMARK. It is almost comical. Stutes has become a caricature of herself and the newcomers will soon be the same. Karl Johnstone is no punk. He could have schooled any one of those members up so fast they wouldn’t even have known what hit them. Actually, as a matter of fact, he did. He did it without even saying a word. He didn’t bite.

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