All in the Family
Connecting the dots between an Alaska senator, his kin, and some fat U.S. contracts
Senate staffers meet with constituents all the time. But in some cases, maybe they shouldn't. Last month, staffers for Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski summoned officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to a meeting in Murkowski's Senate office to discuss awarding a multimillion-dollar, sole-source contract to Chenega Corp., an Alaska Native firm that is represented by Stevens's brother-in-law.
The contract is to provide logistics support for about 13,000 baggage and checkpoint scanners at 450 of the nation's airports. The contract's exact value has been classified by the TSA, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security. The TSA had been preparing to put the contract out for competitive bids next month, government officials say, but about two weeks after the October 19 meeting in Murkowski's office, homeland security officials put that process on hold. A homeland security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the department had instructed TSA contract officials to consider "other alternatives" to an open bidding process.
Department officials told U.S. News that the only alternative now being considered is to award the contract to a Chenega subsidiary, Chenega Technology Services Corp. Stevens's brother-in-law, William Bittner, a partner in the lobbying and law firm of Birch, Horton, Bittner & Cherot, has acted as a financial adviser to Stevens. He also represents a number of Alaska Native corporations, including Chenega. The company, which has paid Bittner $40,000 so far this year, said it did not use him in this case. Bittner did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Stevens, in an interview, acknowledged talking to Bittner about some of the lobbyist's Alaskan clients. But he said he had no knowledge of the meeting in Murkowski's office until a week ago and added that he believes it was set up by her staff. "I want you to know that I never had any involvement at all," the senator said. "One member of my staff attended the meeting without my knowledge. . . . I'm happy to take an oath."
Stevens, who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, said his staff has been instructed not to advocate for specific constituents in gaining sole-source contracts, but he added that he did not believe the staff member involved did anything improper by attending the October 19 meeting. Chuck Kleeschulte, a spokesman for Murkowski, says the meeting was of the sort his office conducts all the time on behalf of constituents who are having trouble navigating the Washington bureaucracy. Kleeschulte later listed several Alaska Native firms that had gotten Murkowski's office to hold "informational meetings" with agencies to discuss each firm's interest in specific contracts. Jeff Hueners, the CEO of Chenega, said his company first sought help from the two Alaska senators after "getting the impression that [TSA] was going to go down their own procurement path." Hueners added that it is sometimes difficult to "get the attention" of contracting officials without bringing them to "such a forum." "We thought they should look at Chenega Technology's option to sole-source it [because] we had just stood up an operation that was analogous in scope for Customs and Border Protection, a sister department," Hueners said. "We thought there were clearly some synergies, both in terms of cost savings and operations efficiencies."