Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mauer and Kizzia's Story on Seward

Jetleg had me awake at 4am yesterday and as I tried to go back to sleep, Monday's ADN story on Seward's part in the FBI investigations by Rich Mauer and Tom Kizzia wandered back into my consciousness from when I had quickly read the story on line a couple days earlier.

I have a couple of observations and a couple more details on the story.


1. Rich and Tom did a fine job of reporting.
2. In this case the City of Seward public administrators (the career bureaucrats) courageously fought the decisions of the politicians, even putting their jobs on the line.
3. The case of Tylan Schrock again shows the corrupting power of power.

  1. Rich Mauer and Tom Kizzia's good journalism.
Rich and Tom have been holding this story for a long time. I know Rich was interviewing people in the Seward city government back in August. I have two former students in Seward and I talked to one of them about all this back then. Rich was trying to get interviews. Would the student's job be in jeopardy for speaking to the press? The prospect was strong. The student had been warned by the then City Manager not to raise issues (just in the office, let alone the press.) So I only mentioned the story obliquely not wanting risk my former student's job. So while Rich had much of this story back in August, he held onto it until he got all the corroborating evidence - the documents he requested from the city, the key interviews (while the ex-student was already talking to the FBI, the student did also agree to talk to Rich.) And Rich has been respectful of the people he interviewed recognizing that they were taking risks just talking to him. So, all in all, this is some outstanding journalism that the people of Anchorage should be appreciative of. And it's part of a growing collection of pieces that the ADN, Rich particularly, has been offering the public on these topics. (I don't mean to downplay Tom's part in this, but I have talked to Rich about this story, but not to Tom.)

2. Public Administrators vs. Politicians

This is a distinction that is often lost on most people when they complain about government. It's really a story for another post. But I would point out it is the career politicians who do the daily work of government, who carry out the laws that politicians pass. And in the Seward story, it was the public administrators who strongly opposed the City's purchase of the earmarked property. What isn't mentioned in the story is that the public administrators put together a powerpoint presentation for the City Council that showed point by point the contractual relationship between the City and the Sealife Center and why, if I remember the details correctly, they shouldn't even allow the Sealife Center to purchase the property. The hope was that while enough Council members had personal interests in the property, at least the public would see what was going on when the powerpoint was shown at the meeting. But the Council decided to show the powerpoint in a closed session. At least one of the public administrators had foreseen this possibility and had distributed CD's of the powerpoint to some key Seward citizens, and the city manager approved posting it on the city website. The council (or maybe just the mayor) had it removed soon after, and the city manager was removed as well. The good news is that the fired city manager was elected mayor of Seward in the November election as were some less conflicted council members and the jobs of the public administrators who fought this are now much more secure again.

3. Tylan Schrock and the power of power

Tylan was also one of my students. He was very bright, very competent, and eager to make the world a better place when he graduated. In the Mauer/Kizzia story, Tylan is portrayed as the evasive director of the SeaLife Center, who appears to have arranged for the SeaLife Center to buy the property when the City of Seward said 'no', and who has recently announced his upcoming resignation.

I know Tylan pretty well. I was one of the people who recommended him for the job as assistant to the city manager at Seward when he graduated. And it was the right thing to do. Tylan had everything right and going for him. And he did such a good job for the City that they moved him over to the SeaLife Center because it belongs to the City and was not doing well. And since he moved there it has been doing very well. But it is important to note this line from the article:

The Alaska SeaLife Center has long been a favorite of Stevens, who has steered more than $50 million in federal funds to the nonprofit facility since it opened in 1998, including more than $3.5 million in the most recent appropriations bills. Schrock has been executive director for more than seven of those years.
There's no question that the SeaLife Center would be nowhere without the initial funding and continuing support of Ted Stevens' earmarks. (But I would also add that even with money an organization can be poorly managed. In fact having lots of money can make people careless - just watch the legislature. So while the money made Tylan's job easier, it alone didn't guarantee the success of the Center.)

My point, though, is that the Center was overwhelmingly dependent on Ted Stevens' earmarks. And remember that this earmark for purchasing McCabe's building was made in 2005. That was still a time when most Alaskan's were willing to look the other way while Ted was passing them money. It is easy to jump in and criticize Tylan, but it is also easy to see how difficult it might be to say no to person whose continuing financial support has made your organization possible.

That was how you played the game back then. It would be interesting to get a list of the people who have said 'no' to Ted Stevens when he was giving out money. Tylan didn't know the unofficial rules of the game were about the change. Neither did Anderson, Kott, or Kohring.

Now, we only have Mauer's story on this, so I don't want to say that Tylan is guilty of anything at this point (though Mauer's story is consistent with what I have heard myself). I'm not sure that he actually broke any laws. But let's assume that Tylan did knowingly arrange to use the earmark to buy the property through the SeaLife Center. My discussion above is only to understand why it happened, not to condone it.

The employees at the City of Seward had, in fact, said 'no' to the deal. They knew it was a bad deal and politically motivated. While the City of Seward is nowhere as dependent on Stevens as was the SeaLife Center, the employees themselves were risking their jobs in this action. And the City Manager lost his job. And, now, three years later Tylan has tendered his resignation (apparently, from what I've heard, not under pressure from the board) anyway. Doing what is right pays off in the long term.

As I watched the three trials last year I couldn't help but think about Pleasure Island in the movie Pinocchio.
Pleasure Island serves as a haven for wayward boys, allowing them to drink, smoke, and vandalize without recrimination. One of those boys is Lampwick, a tough bully of a boy that Pinocchio befriends. He smokes, drinks, plays pool, and then gets turned into a donkey. (from Duckman)
Luckily for Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, his conscience, helps him escape that fate. (While googling on this I found an accounting ethics book that uses the story of Pinocchio to help talk about ethics.)

Juneau is a lot like Pleasure Island. It's full of temptations, and three of the wicked boys who were sent to Juneau have been turned into donkeys. If anyone has any weaknesses the lobbyists in Juneau, like Stromboli, the puppeteer on Pleasure Island, exploit them. So far, the people who have been tried and convicted have been among the exploited. Anderson and Kott and Kohring are not wicked people, though they all had issues that made them exploitable. Three of the exploiters - Bill Allen, Rick Smith, and Frank Prewitt (and to a lesser degree Bill Bobrick) - have all made deals with the FBI and the Prosecutors. Maybe that is why they were the exploiters and not the exploited. They were smart enough to see the writing on the wall. I keep hearing rumors that more indictments are due any day (and since I'm not getting the ADN at my doorstep here in Thailand, they may have already come - I better look online before I post this.) and am hopeful that the drug lords (in this case money and power were the drugs) will be among the indicted, and not just the addicts.

This whole culture of power and money, I think sucked Tylan into a situation where he didn't thnk he could say no to the people who had made the SeaLife Center, itself a worthy institution, possible.

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