The real games are in Alaska

How to keep up with all the scandals rocking Alaska's government? A veteran Juneau politics reporter offers this primer. Part 1 of 2
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How to keep up with all the scandals rocking Alaska's government? A veteran Juneau politics reporter offers this primer. Part 1 of 2
First of two parts.

The Alaska Permanent Fund, the system through which the State of Alaska sends its residents a check each fall, was created, in large part, as a way to make sure we keep an eye on how our government spends our money. The annual prompt was thought to be necessary because our state money comes mostly from oil taxes and royalty payments, not our own pockets.

This year's paycheck for being an Alaskan is expected to be just over $2,000, up more than $300 from 2007. The raise is well deserved simply because there's been so much more to watch.

Aug. 31 will be the second anniversary of the FBI raid on the Alaska capitol building offices of seven state senate and house members in Juneau. Since the search, the still-growing influence peddling scandal has resulted in federal felony convictions of three former Alaska House members, one former gubernatorial chief of staff, and four lobbyists/corporate officers.

Awaiting trial on federal charges are one U.S. senator — the mighty Ted Stevens — one state senator, and one state House member. Alaska's lone congressman, Don Young, is under investigation. He hasn't been charged with anything but has spent more than $1 million on defense attorneys, using campaign contributions for much of that cost.

All of the above relates only to federal probes. Alaska's Dept. of Law is conducting its own investigation of the state legislative portion of the influence-peddling scandal, and wildly popular Gov. Sarah Palin is under investigation by the Legislature for possible ethics law violations relating to her sudden firing of her commissioner of public safety in July.

For those looking for something to fixate on when the Beijing Olympics end, here's a breakdown of the Alaskan games:

Awaiting Trial

Jury selection in U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 22. A month earlier he lost a bid to gain the home court advantage when U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled, Aug. 20, against Stevens' motion to move the event to Alaska from Washington D.C.

Stevens should easily win the Aug. 24 Republican primary election over a puny pair of challengers. His plan is to beat the rap in time to win the November election, but his own party is not uniformly behind him, and a legal victory alone in this era of change may not assure an election win. Anchorage banker Dave Cuddy, one of the primary election opponents, is airing ads declaring himself to be "the only Republican who can win in November." That's when Stevens will likely face Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who is also highly likely to win the Democrat primary.

Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in U.S. Senate history, is seeking a seventh term, but that's hardly his lucky number. He faces seven charges of knowingly making false statements on annual financial disclosure forms from 1999 through 2006. The list of "things of value" prosecutors say Stevens didn't disclose has continued to grow. It started in the original indictment with $250,000 worth of improvements and additions to his Alaska home in the south Anchorage suburb of Girdwood.

The home improvements include an emergency generator, high-ticket kitchen appliances, and the raising of the one-story chalet to insert a new ground floor. The indictment alleges, in essence, that the work was done by employees of VECO Corp., an international oil field service company, while Stevens was billed only for materials costs. The defiant senator says he paid all bills he received.

Recent federal court filings claim Stevens made more than $100,000 on the sale of a pre-construction Florida condo he owned for barely six months after purchasing it with an interest-free loan and a $5,000 down payment. The remaining $31,000 of the mandatory minimum down payment was borrowed from a friend and not repaid until after Stevens sold the condo, according to court documents.

Stevens is also alleged to have gotten executives of VECO Corp. to sell Land Rovers to family members at below-market prices and to find jobs for a son and grandson. Bill Allen and Rick Smith, former CEO and vice president, respectively, of Anchorage-based VECO, have already pleaded guilty to multiple bribery and conspiracy charges, naming Stevens among their beneficiaries.

Testimony by the VECO honchos was largely responsible for sending two of the three convicted Alaska House members to prison. Former House Speaker Pete Kott, from the north Anchorage suburb of Eagle River, was sentenced to six years for taking less than $8,000 in cash and the promise of work for his wood flooring company from VECO. Rep. Vic Kohring, chairman of the House Special Committee on Oil and Gas, got three years and six months for taking $2,500 from the VECO executives and getting a job with the company for a nephew. The VECO boys turned down Kohring's request for a "loan" to pay off $17,000 in credit card debts.

Both convictions relate to the lawmakers' efforts, and repeated pledges, to help win legislative approval of a sweetheart deal for construction of a natural gas pipeline by Alaska's three largest oil producers: ConocoPhillips, BP, and ExxonMobil. The pipeline contract, negotiated by then Gov. Frank Murkowski, would have frozen oil and gas tax rates for decades as part of an estimated $10 billion in subsidies to the project.

No oil companies or executives have yet been directly linked to the conspiracy.

The other House convict, former Anchorage representative Tom Anderson, began his five-year sentence last fall for money laundering and bribery convictions in relation to efforts to win legislative approval for construction of a privately owned prison that would have been run by Cornell Companies. The Texas prison operator was losing money on the halfway houses it operates in Alaska.

The prison scandal also took down lobbyists Bill Bobrick and Bill Weimar. Bobrick, last year, got five months behind federal bars for conspiracy to bribe Anderson. Weimar pleaded guilty to two federal charges on Aug. 11 and awaits sentencing. Both cooperated with the feds, who said Anderson received more than $25,000 funneled through a sham publishing company. Anderson maintained his innocence of the seven charges on which he was convicted until his sentencing hearing last October. His wife, Lesil McGuire, who he met while she was also a House member, moved to the Alaska Senate in the 2006 election.

Anchorage Sen. John Cowdery, a corpulent, ailing 78-year old, is scheduled for an Oct. 6 trial on two charges of conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery for allegedly working with VECO executives to funnel $25,000 to Sen. Donny Olson of Nome for his 2006 election campaign. Olson, the only Democrat implicated to date in any of the scandals, has not been charged with anything and is running for a third Senate term this year.

Cowdery was indicted on July 10 of this year. He maintains his innocence and has refused to resign from office, though he is not running for re-election after a total of 14 years in the House and Senate since 1982. He was absent for most of the two 30-day special legislative sessions this summer on Gov. Palin's gas pipeline proposal. Cowdery did give up influential posts as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which controls the flow of bills to the Senate floor, and of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which decides what state agencies or contractors are audited by legislative accountants.

Kohring was the only other lawmaker indicted while in office. He resigned his House seat a month after charges were filed against him in May of 2007 to prepare for his trial. He spent the morning before reporting to prison standing with a "thank you" sign for his loyal supporters on the same highway where he used to wave his re-election signs during his 12-year legislative career.

Kohring says he will be vindicated by the appeal his federal public defender is working on and plans to return to office one day.

The trial of attorney and former Juneau House member Bruce Weyhrauch on four charges of VECO-related conspiracy, bribery, attempted extortion, and mail fraud is on hold until a time uncertain. After serving two terms beginning in 2002, Weyhrauch had already announced that he would not be running for re-election in 2006 when he was indicted in May of that year.

Weyhrauch isn't alleged to have taken any cash, but got the promise that VECO would send legal work to his one-man law practice in Juneau.

Weyhrauch was to be tried with Kott last September. U.S. District Judge John Sedwick ruled in his favor to separate the trials and also refused to allow the introduction of evidence relating to Weyhrauch's failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest during a House floor debate on the Murkowski pipeline contract in 2006.

Prosecutors are appealing both rulings. A three-judge panel of the notoriously slow-ruling 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on Aug. 4. Either side could take the issues to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could delay Weyhrauch's trial for years.

Next: A senator's son looks suspicious, and even the executive branch succumbs.  

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