Ice Alaska money trail needs state audit, investigation
I've been a big fan of the annual ice sculpting event in Fairbanks since it began more than a quarter-century ago.
It has become a powerful late-winter attraction for tourists and residents. But the Ice Alaska competition is on the rocks and won't be held in 2018. There are doubts about whether it will make a comeback in 2019.
I hope that the effort succeeds and that volunteers can rebuild the nonprofit organization. They are planning a nine-day event at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds in March, which is where the event should have been moved years ago, instead of to an expensive piece of property off the Johansen Expressway.
But first, we need to resolve the controversy in Fairbanks about what happened to the $2 million state grant given to Ice Alaska to buy land for the ice park.
The land is now in private hands because Ice Alaska gave the property to D&H Enterprises, a company owned by Dick and Hoa Brickley, who have been leading figures in ice sculpting and Ice Alaska from the start. The transfer took place in 2014, according to Ice Alaska, but it was not publicized. The Brickleys have done a lot and invested a lot of time and money. No one disputes that.
Here's the thing with Ice Alaska and its $2 million state grant: The rules for obtaining a state grant say “The Grantee agrees that the project to which this Grant Agreement relates shall be dedicated to public purposes for its useful life.”
Giving the 27-acre site to D&H Enterprises is not a public purpose.
It's important to remember that state grants, which have almost stopped with the crash in oil prices, received almost no scrutiny for many years. Elected officials of both parties liked the lax approach and it is easy to highlight appalling examples in which they found no need for vigilance about the money trail.
The convoluted story of this state grant began more than a decade ago under the Murkowski administration. Some of it was spent on a relative of Hoa Brickley's who designed a new building and there were other expenses charged as well. Over the years, Ice Alaska struggled to reach a deal on a permanent site and get the grant money in hand. Unanswered questions raised by the Fairbanks North Star Borough led the Legislature to appropriate the money a second and third time, with it finally going directly to Ice Alaska five years ago.
According to the minutes of a Nov. 22 Ice Alaska meeting, which I have included here, there was a question from the floor: "How did D&H Brickley end up in possession of all property and assets even after a $2.1 million state grant?"
By 2012, the grant had dwindled to $1.6 million and it was designated to buy the site. While that was in the process of getting approved, Dick Brickley used his personal money to move ahead on the property purchase, moved buildings to the site and bought heavy equipment. (News reports in 2011 said the sale price of $2.3 million for the land was nearly three times the assessed value. Hank Bartos, a real estate agent and long-time Ice Alaska backer who remains on the board, handled the deal.)
"Once the funds were in the bank, Mr. Brickley produced receipts that left a deficit owed to him," according to the Nov. 22 account of the grant history.
"As of 2014, Mr. and Mrs. Brickley provided a balance sheet indicating that from 2011-2014, they had donated over $2.3 million to Ice Alaska, an amount that the organization could never pay back."
Ice Alaska "signed over all property and physical assets" to D&H Enterprises, "with the understanding that the individual board members would be held harmless."
Today, new board members have been appointed, the Brickleys have been "removed from all Ice Alaska functions," there is a new bank account, "and accounting procedures are put into place, all non-compliant licenses and insurances are updated, reinstated and penalties are paid," the minutes say.
This situation needs an immediate state investigation and audit to clear up old questions and lay the groundwork for what comes next.
It seems to me that either the land should be returned to Ice Alaska by D&H or the money should be returned to the state.
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