Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday that she had no idea for three months that her fisheries adviser had signed a plea deal with federal prosecutors in which he'd admitted illegal fishing and agreed to nearly a year in federal prison. But Murkowski said she still kept him on the job for a month after he told her of his crime in June.
Murkowski had refused to answer any questions about staffer Arne Fuglvog this week, saying through a spokesman that it was an ongoing legal process. But she said she decided to address the issue on Thursday because "there has been such interest that has been generated about what has gone on and the timing."
Fuglvog signed a plea deal on April 8 in which he admitted to a charge of breaking federal commercial fisheries law by falsifying catch records. He agreed as part of the deal to a sentence of 10 months in prison and $150,000 in fines and penalties.
"I was not aware that Arne had signed that plea agreement on April 8th," Murkowski said Thursday. "I learned about that with the rest of the state on Monday when those documents were filed."
Murkowski said Fuglvog did tell her on June 29 he was going to enter in a plea agreement on Aug. 1.
"He told me the extent of the violations, what they entailed. ... He has accepted the consequences. Let me tell you, when he brought this to me on the 29th he did not attempt to say that this was wrongly brought," Murkowski said.
But Fuglvog also did not tell her he had actually signed the plea deal three months earlier, she said.
Murkowski said when Fuglvog revealed his plea deal to her in June she told him he would have to resign. But she still allowed him to remain on her staff for another month and did not accept his resignation until Sunday, the day before he was formally charged and his plea agreement went public.
"He stayed on my staff until the 31st of July. The fact of the matter is we have a legal system here in this country -- an individual is innocent until proven guilty. I applied that to Arne," she said.
Murkowski, asked whether she took any action to curtail Fuglvog's involvement in fisheries policy in that final month after learning of his crime, said "there were certainly restrictions on traveling, we had planned a trip out to Dillingham doing fish stuff and canceled that, canceled the travel most clearly."
Murkowski said she didn't learn until December of 2010 or January 2011 that there were allegations against Fuglvog. Murkowski said Fuglvog told her chief of staff, Karen Knutson, about it and Knutson passed it along. Knutson ended up leaving Murkowski's staff in May and became a lobbyist for Oxbow Carbon, a Florida-based coal and gas company owned by Bill Koch. Murkowski named her legislative director, Edward Hild, as her new chief of staff.
Murkowski said she didn't take action against Fuglvog when she first heard because "what I had been told was that there were allegations of a fishing violation and not much more beyond that. I wanted to respect the process as it went along; a lot of times these things can go on for years or turn out to be nothing at all."
Fuglvog's plea deal says he falsified records of his commercial catches several times between 2001 and 2006, a period during which he helped regulate fishing off Alaska as a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Fuglvog joined Murkowski's staff in September 2006.
He admitted that in one 2005 incident he "covered up his illegal fishing" by claiming more than 30,000 pounds of sablefish, also known as black cod, were caught in the Central Gulf of Alaska region, rather than an area known as Western Yakutat. The value of those illegally caught fish was about $100,000, according to his plea agreement.
Fuglvog's attorney, Jeff Feldman of Anchorage, said he couldn't comment on the case or Murkowski's remarks.
Fuglvog came close two years ago to taking over as head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the highest government position in the country focused solely on fishing.
Fuglvog was widely reported in fishing industry journals as one of two finalists for the position and had letters of support from both Murkowski, a Republican, and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat.
But Fuglvog pulled his name from consideration in July 2009, saying that the selection process was going on too long.
Murkowski said she doesn't know if the real reason Fuglvog pulled out of contention was because he was under investigation and knew about it.
"I can't imagine you would go into that process if in fact you knew that you had these allegations over your head," Murkowski said.
Murkowski said Thursday she wouldn't discuss Fuglvog earlier this week because "I thought it was appropriate to let the plea agreement get to the court ... I really didn't want to speak out until the court had accepted this."
A judge has not yet accepted his guilty plea. Fuglvog is scheduled to be arraigned and formally enter his plea at a hearing next Thursday in Anchorage federal court in front of U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland.
News organizations around the state have been running stories this week focusing on Murkowski's refusal to answer questions about Fuglvog. Murkowski said on Thursday that she decided to speak on the matter given the interest and what she said was the fact she hadn't known before Monday that Fuglvog signed the deal back in April admitting his crimes.
"Folks need some clarity on it and I'm not hiding behind this," she said.
Clarification:The original version of this story reported that Bill Koch, owner of Oxbow Carbon, , is well known for supporting conservative causes along with his brother. While Bill Koch supports conservative causes, two of his brothers -- David and Charles -- are co-owners of Koch Industries and have received much attention in recent months for their political activities and support for conservative causes.
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.