ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- After initially declining to disclose the clients and the fees they paid to his engineering firm, state Senate candidate Bob Bell on Wednesday released a list showing that oil giant BP was the largest client of Bell and Associates in 2011, paying over $1 million.
And in an interview on the subject, Bell disclosed that when he served on the Anchorage Assembly, he was offered engineering contracts and "a whole bunch of money" for his reelection campaign in 1996 if he would support the effort by oil-field contractor Veco and other companies to build a private prison in South Anchorage. Bell said he rejected the money and didn't support the prison but also said he didn't report the apparent bribe attempt to authorities.
In his filing Wednesday and in the interview, Bell didn't say exactly how much his company was paid by BP. The Alaska Public Offices Commission doesn't require disclosure of precise amounts, only ranges. In the case of income in the millions of dollars, a public official or candidate only has to say it's $1 million or more.
But Bell, a Republican, acknowledged in an interview that the oil industry played a significant role in his firm's $7.7 million in receipts for 2011, and that relationship continues today. For instance, his firm will do survey and other work at Exxon's Point Thomson field when it's developed, he said.
The client list also shows that Bell's firm also did hundreds of thousands of dollars of subcontract work for companies that work on North Slope projects.
The disclosure raises significant conflict of interest questions related to Bell's candidacy. Oil taxes are one of the key issues in the Senate election and will likely be at the top of the agenda when the 28th Legislature convenes in January.
'THEY APPROACHED ME'
Gov. Sean Parnell, House Republicans and supporters of the industry want to cut the state's taxes on oil production to encourage producers to drill more wells in older fields and stem the decline in oil through the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Bell's opponent in November, Democrat Hollis French, was a leading member of the Senate bipartisan coalition that blocked a House bill to cut oil taxes. French and other senators said the bill passed by the House would have cut $2 billion a year in state revenue without requiring the industry to do more in Alaska. The coalition instead offered a deal that would only reduce taxes on "legacy" fields like Prudhoe Bay if producers increased production over baseline amounts. That proposal died in the Legislature.
Bell has received strong support from the oil industry and Alaska companies that do business with it, but he said he wouldn't support a tax cut that didn't also lead to increased oil production. The House bill that died in the Senate "is a good place to start" but wouldn't have gotten his vote as written, he said.
The French-Bell contest is taking place in Senate District J, covering West Anchorage, Turnagain and Sand Lake.
In the interview, Bell rejected any notion that he would be influenced by money paid by clients to F. Robert Bell and Associates, the civil engineering firm he helped found nearly 40 years ago and which he still runs as president and chief executive.
"What it gets down to -- do you have the strength of character to be able to represent people and not be biased by what goes on around you?" Bell said. "I proved that when I was on the Assembly. A good example would be that prison that Veco wanted to put in South Anchorage."