The Alaska Department of Law appears to have no interest in whether retired Kotzebue teacher Paul Atkins was illegally collecting permanent fund dividends (PFDs) for years, but says that if anyone else is troubled by his behavior they should contact state Department of Revenue investigators.
The Department’s Office of Special Prosecutions at the start of the month trumpeted the conviction of the 56-year-old Kotzebue hunter with a media release headlined “Outdoor Writer, Pro Staffer Ordered to Pay $15,000 in fines, lose hunting license for three years for illegal harvest of Musk Ox.”
Born and reared in Oklahoma before coming north to teach, and apparently living back in that state now, Atkins never let go of his Oklahoma roots.
Atkins posed it then as a rhetorical question. It became far more real when it was discovered that on those trips back “home” he had been continuing to buy Oklahoma resident hunting licenses. That act voided his claim to being a resident Alaska hunter for both general and subsistence hunts in Alaska, as it would void any PFD claims he might have made in the two decades previous..
The PFD application, unlike a resident hunting license, also requires Alaska residents to swear they “intend to remain an Alaska resident indefinitely at the time you apply for a dividend,” but what one writes in a magazine, especially in these days of fake news, is not evidence he didn’t intend to stay indefinitely in Alaska.
Accepting a resident benefit in another state – such as the Montana resident hunting and fishing license that caused commercial fisherman Roland Maw to lose his long-coveted seat on the Alaska Board of Fisheries – does, however, qualify as prima facia evidence that you are not an Alaskan.
Maw ended up charged with 12 felonies, and spent six years – plus who knows how much money – wrangling with the state in court with claims, among other things, that his PFDs applications, which were filed electronically, must have been submitted by someone else typing on his computer.
He eventually dragged the case out long enough that the state agreed to drop the felonies and let him plead out to a sole misdemeanor with the condition he pay back the money he’d taken illegally from the permanent fund. The state was good enough to let him keep any interest he might have earned on those funds.
Atkins never had to face felony charges.
Another plea deal
Nearly all hunting and fishing crimes in Alaska are misdeamoners, and Atkins ended up charged with a dozen of them.
A longtime school teacher in Kotzebue and a budding outdoor writer embraced by the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) in 2013, Atkins’s history of claiming residency in two states caught up to him after someone apparently unhappy about his obtaining subsistence hunting permits ratted him out to Alaska State Troopers.
Deciding who gets to hunt and where in Alaska is complicated, but state law has basically created a three-tier system. There are hunts open to both resident and non-resident hunters. There are hunts open to only resident hunters; all of whom are considered to be hunting for subsistence.
And there are so-called Tier II subsistence hunts open to only a subset of resident hunters. Permits for those hunts are available to the few either by their trading away statewide hunting privileges to hunt in specific and limited areas and/or their scoring points that determine how a small number of permits will be awarded to hunters based on residency, dependence on the resources and other factors.
As a resident of the village of Kotzebue in the remote, Northwest corner of Alaska far from the road system and a resident of the 49th, Atkins was one of those qualified for a small number of subsistence permits to hunt muskox until someone tipped the state he was also claiming to be a resident of Oklahoma and the Alaska Wildlife Troopers began an investigation into his residency.
The investigation led to the 12 misdemeanor changes, and the seemingly inevitable Alaska plea bargain followed. Atkins eventually offered a guilty plea to a charge of failing to comply with the conditions of a hunting permit, a charge of providing the state false information and a charge of illegally transporting game.
For his plea to those three misdemeanors. Atkins was ordered to pay $38,000 in fines and restitution, but the bulk of that sentence – $23,000 – was suspended by the Nome judge who revoked Atkins’s Alaska hunting privileges for three years, put him on probation for the same amount of time, and claimed for the state “20 taxidermy items” seized during the trooper investigation.
The possibility that he might have spent years illegally filing for PFDs, the annual share of earnings from oil revenue investments distributed to Alaska residents each year, appears to have gone uninvestigated.
In answer to a question, Department of Law spokeswoman Patty Sullivan on Monday emailed that any crime Atkins might have committed in regards to PFDS was not part of the plea deal, and indicated that the Office of Special Prosecutions was not interested in pursuing a PFD investigation.
“The plea agreement involved fish and game charges,” she wrote. “Although there are similarities in terms of the elements of fraud for fish and game violations and for the PFD, they are not the same. The Alaska Department of Revenue has investigators who specialize in PFD fraud. If you believe you have evidence of such fraud, please contact them.”
An earlier query as to whether Special Prosecutions had originally checked for PFD violations, given that the PFD statute clearly states that obtaining a resident hunting or fishing license in another state voids any claim to Alaska residency, had solicited this response:
“The Office of Special Prosecution for Fish and Game does not investigate cases. We prosecute crimes investigated by the Alaska Wildlife Troopers and then referred to our office. Questions regarding how the investigation was conducted are better suited for the troopers.”
A copy of the digital record of Atkins’s PFD filings was then sent to the Office. It does not appear to have been forwarded to troopers.
Atkins, meanwhile, appears to be back in Oklahoma. His Facebook has gone dark as have his websites – pauldatkins.com and paulatkinsoutdoors.com – but the Alaska Sporting Journal was by June of this year already identifying him as “an outdoor write and author formerly of Kotzebue, Alaska and now based in Oklahoma.”
That could be a good place for him to be. PFD prosecutions of people who have moved Outside appear rare, although the Alaska Department of Law did four years ago charge 44-year-old, Alabama resident Sheila Mary Rose McMahon, widely described in the media as a former Alaskan, with “148 charges of filing false claims for PFD applications on behalf of more than 50 people.
Most of the applications were denied, but some were approved; the Associated Press reported McMahon collected about $17,000 in checks from the state before she was arrested in Alabama and extradited back to Alaska.
Once here, court records reveal that she negotiated a plea deal that saw all but one of the charges dismissed. She then entered a guilty plea to a charge of scheming to defraud the state and was fined $13,352. The fine was due by March of this year. It was not paid, and the case had since been turned over to a Columbus, Ohio, collection agency, according to those records.