JUNEAU — Legislation that could return nearly two decades of permanent fund dividends to the men known as the Fairbanks Four is stalled in the Senate State Affairs Committee. House Bill 127 is designed to return dividends to individuals whose criminal convictions have been vacated, reversed or dismissed, according to the bill.
The bill was introduced by Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki last year but has gained little ground since then. The legislation currently sits in the Senate State Affairs Committee without a scheduled hearing.
Committee member and North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill said he has yet to review the bill but is hesitant to support it if it includes the Fairbanks Four.
Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese and Kevin Pease were convicted for the alleged murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman in 1997. In 2015, the men challenged their conviction with the help of the Fairbanks Innocence Project which eventually resulted in an agreement that cleared their convictions, but also kept them from being able to sue for damages.
Coghill said this stipulation agreement contributes to his reservations regarding the bill.
“I’m probably reluctant to agree with the Fairbanks Four but the bill is not entirely about them,” Coghill said. “I plan to give it an honest hearing.”
Roberts made a Facebook post Thursday afternoon saying he was giving up his fight for the bill.
“I am giving up on the fight for our back dividends. It is difficult to leave $25,000 on the table like that but I am tired of wasting energy on what feels like a losing battle,” Roberts wrote. “I will remember certain Senators and Representatives. Thank you to all that helped.”
Coghill said he spoke with Roberts by phone Friday and explained his position on the bill.
“I told him on this deal I couldn’t support him, because of the stipulations in the agreement,” Coghill said. “I think it would be wrong to do that. So, if the bill includes them, I probably won’t be in favor of the bill.”
Coghill said that the principle of the bill seems logical, but going back on the previously signed agreement doesn’t seem right.
“I don’t wish anymore harm on these people,” Coghill said. “They’ve been on a journey that I can’t even imagine, but it is a journey that includes that document.”
The Fairbanks Four filed a series of lawsuits in December against the city of Fairbanks, three former police officers and one current officer for wrongful imprisonment.
Coghill said depending on the results of the lawsuit, his position on the bill may change.
“If the Fairbanks suit opens up a whole new issue then I might rethink that position, but as it stands, the decree stands. Whether it’s right, it doesn’t really matter, it’s kind of the rule of law at this point.”
As the legislature draws near to its final week before reaching the 90-day mark, the bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. Coghill said he has no knowledge of when the hearing could be.
Contact staff writer Erin Granger at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.