California Watch wasn’t the only one trying to pry loose government documents on the Alaska Native Corporation that got a $54 million federal stimulus contract to relocate the tracks for the Napa Valley Wine Train.
It turns out that Napa County – the project’s co-sponsor – attempted to learn more about Suulutaaq Inc. last year via the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In a FOIA letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead agency on the project, the locals asked for "a copy of the proposal" submitted by Suulutaaq, the Alaska firm that got the job without competitive bidding.
The Corps refused.
Reporters think this only happens to them.
But in an Aug. 26, 2009, reply, Corps district counsel Carl Korman said the government was legally prohibited from disclosing Suulutaaq’s proposal to anyone – including the local point-person on the Wine Train project, Julie Lucido of the Napa County flood control district.
Perhaps trying to be helpful, Korman told Lucido her appeal rights, and said there would be no fee for processing her request.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Lucido said she sought the proposal in hopes of learning how Suulutaaq intended to sequence street-closings in downtown Napa for construction – a huge local issue.
“I wanted more details about … the fluffy part of construction,” she said. “Not where the storm drain goes, but how it got there.”
In subsequent meetings, she said she’s basically learned what she was trying to find out.
In a Jan. 31, story, California Watch reported on how Suulutaaq, a corporation created by tribal groups on the remote Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, managed to get the biggest no-bid stimulus contract in the state. Suulutaaq is an unusual firm: Its present CEO has no construction experience, the story reported, and his last big venture, a dot-com for sail boaters, collapsed in bankruptcy.
Two Republican U.S. Senators, John McCain and Tom Coburn, have criticized the project as silly and wasteful. But local boosters have retorted that the critique is deeply unfair, and the Obama administration defended the project, saying it will create hundreds of jobs.
In reporting that story, California Watch sought documents from both Napa County and the Corps of Engineers.
At first Napa County balked at making public any documents about Suulutaaq.
It cited the California Supreme Court’s so-called Deukmejian case, which some state agencies claim gives them the equivalent of “executive privilege” – a flat-out exemption from having to disclose information about the workings of government.
But with the assistance of Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, and Terry Francke of Californians Aware, we appealed, and the county made documents public, including paperwork regarding Napa's own spurned FOIA request. The Corps of Engineers says it will release some documents, too.
Meanwhile, the Washington Times gave the Wine Train project another flogging in a recent editorial about stimulus-spending excesses.