FAIRBANKS — Former Gov. Frank Murkowski and his daughter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said Thursday they had no role in getting a full-ride scholarship for a family member at a private East Coast university whose dean sought occasional political favors from them.
The scholarship was mentioned Monday in a lengthy New York Times profile of Cecilia Chang, the former St. John’s University dean who committed suicide during her trial in early November on federal fraud and embezzlement charges.
The article cited correspondence that showed how Chang sought help from the Alaska Republican politicians and, on one occasion, received an endorsement letter from then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.
However, the former governor said Thursday he’d had only minimal contact with Chang about 10 years ago. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she’d had no contact.
“I just remember she was very flamboyant,” Frank Murkowski said. “Where you meet these people, you meet them at receptions and many times they seek you out. But I’ve never sought her out.”
He said his granddaughter, Kimberly Van Wyhe, enrolled at St. John’s and later was offered two scholarships. Van Wyhe is the daughter of Eileen and Leon Van Wyhe, of Fairbanks. Eileen Van Wyhe is the former governor’s daughter.
“I had nothing to do with the scholarship,” the former governor said. “I was pleased that she was offered the scholarship; I was pleased to hear she accepted the scholarship.”
Lisa Murkowski also said she had no role in obtaining the scholarship. “I’m certain I didn’t even write a letter of recommendation for her (enrollment) application, much less a scholarship,” she said Thursday.
While governor in 2003, Frank Murkowski did send a letter to Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian on his official Alaska stationary, at Chang’s request, just before the president’s visit to Alaska that year. The letter was copied almost verbatim from a draft that Chang provided when she made the request. It asked President Chen to continue the Taiwanese government’s support for St. John’s University, a request that ultimately went unfulfilled.
Gov. Murkowski said Thursday he remembers the context but not the letter. President Chen was a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, which had defeated the Kuomintang, the party that had held control in Taiwan since its split from China in 1949. Murkowski said he suspects St. John’s, which had received support under the Kuomintang, wanted to build ties with the new government.
Murkowski said he viewed whatever endorsement he might have given St. John’s as part of “my continued support of Taiwan and the people of Taiwan to determine their own destiny, as opposed to having it determined by the People’s Republic of China, and I’d taken that position on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and I maintain it today.”
Murkowski served as an elections observer in January in Taiwan, and he spoke last week in San Jose, Calif., at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a nonprofit group that advocates an independent and democratic Taiwan.
The correspondence cited by the New York Times also included a letter from Chang to the former governor in 2007, after he was out of office, asking that he enlist his daughter to help with an immigration application from a Taiwanese businessman. The letter did not disclose that the businessman was a fugitive under investigation for embezzlement.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday that staff in her Anchorage office found a record of Chang contacting them with the request, but the solicitation was not acted upon.
“Apparently, she had contacted the Anchorage office and had asked for a letter on behalf of her friend’s petition,” Sen. Murkowski said. “We have a strict policy. If I don’t have a long-term relationship with this person, then there is no letter. It’s viewed as inappropriate. Nothing was done from our office on my behalf to assist, because we’d never heard of this guy.”
In a 2004 letter to Frank Murkowski asking for help in convincing the government of Turkey to replace the lost funding from Taiwan, Chang said the governor had been approved for an honorary degree from St. John’s and that she hoped to get one for Lisa Murkowski, as well.
Both Murkowskis said Thursday that they neither sought nor received such degrees.
The Times story also said Frank Murkowski had delivered a pro-Taiwan speech at St. John’s Sun Yat Sen Hall when he was a U.S. senator (1981-2002), but he did not recall doing so.
“I was on the campus once. That was to help (Kimberly) move in,” he said.
Contact Sam Bishop, assistant managing editor, at 459-7474.