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Four Alaska Native corporations join to counter contracting probe

WASHINGTON — Four Alaska Native corporations have joined with other Native American tribes and businesses to form a coalition to fight what they say is misrepresentation of their role in government contracting.

The coalition aims to make its viewpoint known in advance of a Thursday Senate oversight hearing on the federal government contracting program known as the Small Business Administration's 8(a) Business Development Program.

Such programs have steered billions of dollars in federal contracts to many Alaska Native corporations this decade, but they also have drawn congressional scrutiny over concerns about fairness to other minority business and whether the programs are a smart use of public resources.

On Thursday, the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight will hold a hearing on how Alaska's Native corporations get federal work.

The coalition, Native 8(a) Works, aims to educate people about Alaska Native corporations, said Helvi Sandvik, president of the Anchorage-based NANA Development Corp. Sandvik said that includes pointing out that the profits from Alaska Native corporations go back to the Native communities, not to outside investors.

She wrote in a letter to NANA employees that they view the hearing as "a great opportunity to educate members of Congress and the general public on the progress we have made in delivering economic, social and cultural benefits to our shareholders, in part, due to our participation in this program."

"It became very clear to us that this program isn't very well understood," Sandvik said Monday. "So we felt it was important to put information out, to make sure those who are interested in this program truly understand what its intent is, who the participants are and what the benefits are to the United States as well as to various companies that are involved in this program."

The coalition includes Afognak Native Corp., Chenega Corp., Chugach Alaska Corp. and NANA. Each of them has an Anchorage presence and has grown substantially in recent years thanks in part to the federal contracting.

Alaska Native corporation contracting grew from $508 million in 2000 to $5.2 billion last year, according to figures released last month by the subcommittee, headed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. It also found that last year Alaska Native corporations received 19 percent of all federal contracts awarded to small businesses.

McCaskill said Monday she wants to "go into the hearing with an open mind," but added the she has a "bias toward competing for contracts."

That means she'll be taking a close look at rules inserted into federal law years ago by then-Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. The rules allow Native corporations to be eligible for no-bid federal contracts of any size, unlike other small businesses, whose contracts are capped at $5.5 million under the program.

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