WASHINGTON — Todd Palin — oil worker, champion snowmobiler, hunter and commercial fisherman — also has been boning up on mining lately in his role as Alaska's first spouse.
On two separate occasions last fall, the husband of the Republican vice presidential candidate boarded planes chartered by mining companies that want to dig for gold, zinc and lead in remote Alaska valleys.
The trips cost $1,005, according to Gov. Sarah Palin's financial disclosure forms, which described them as gifts. The travel showcased the niche Palin has filled in his wife's administration — helping find jobs for Alaskans who, like him, didn't graduate from college.
Palin, a member of the United Steelworkers Local 4959, himself learned on the job. He began working in oil fields on Alaska's North Slope for BP Exploration Alaska in 1989, a year after he eloped with his high school sweetheart.
He took a leave from his position as a production operator at a Prudhoe Bay facility where oil is separated from water and natural gases when his wife became governor but returned six months later.
During the summer, Palin heads west to his birthplace in Dillingham to work in the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery.
In 2007, he earned $46,791 working part-time on the oil fields and fishing.
"For those of us who learn by touching and tearing stuff apart and for those who don't have the financial background to go to college, just being a product of that on-the-job training is really important," Palin told the Associated Press in an interview last year.
Todd Palin joined with state officials on the two mining trips, and the costs of his travel were disclosed by his wife as gifts in compliance with state ethics laws. The excursions coincide with a mini metals boom in Alaska fueled by high prices. Two new mines are scheduled to open in coming weeks and months, and four more are on the drawing board. There are only four large mines active in Alaska now.
The companies that paid for the flights, a normal means of travel to remote and often roadless parts of Alaska, are both in the early stages of a lengthy approval process. Barrick Gold Corp. spent $805 flying Todd Palin in September 2007 to Donlin Creek, where it hopes to build an open-pit gold mine on Native-owned land. The company hasn't submitted any permit applications yet.
Palin, who sometimes refers to himself as "first dude," traveled with other state officials to the site. The company anticipates employing 150 people, making it the largest employer in the area.
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An environmental consultant for the project, William Jeffress, also donated $1,000 to Gov. Sarah Palin's gubernatorial campaign. A company representative said that donation has little relevance in a process that requires hundreds of permits from federal and state authorities.
"It's hard to image what influence any governor would really have ... other than wanting to be kept informed," said Greg Johnson, a vice president for NovaGold Resources Inc., Barrick's partner in the project.
A month after the first visit, Todd Palin toured the Red Dog Mine, a lead and zinc operation in the northwestern part of the state. The $200 trip, which he took with Alaska's labor commissioner, was paid for by Teck Cominco Alaska Inc. and included a stop at a technical training center. That company is currently seeking permission to mine a new deposit, which would extend the life of the mine to 2031.
Informal role at state Capitol
John Bitney, a childhood friend of the governor's who worked on her campaign and served as her legislative liaison until last summer, said Todd Palin was a common fixture in her office on the third floor of the state Capitol when he was in Juneau. But his role wasn't a formal one.
Bitney said that besides workforce development, Todd Palin showed interest in oil and gas issues and the shooting of wolves from aircraft to boost caribou and moose herds.
Palin's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said Thursday that Todd Palin does not attend high-level cabinet meetings.
He does participate in the ceremonial duties of a first gentleman and recently hosted a tea at the governor's mansion in Juneau for former first ladies of the state.
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