Saturday, March 14, 2009

Beverly Masek COPs a Plea and Leaves Questions

Anchorage, Alaska—

She looks like a nice lady, not like a bribe-taker.

Beverly Masek appeared in court on Thursday to make her in-person admission of her guilt.

The approximately half-hour proceeding in federal court could not have been the most fun experience the former 10-year state legislator ever had. Former Rep. Masek (R.-Willow) was in good hands, though, surrounded by top-notch lawyers and facing a thorough judge.

That judge—Ralph Beistline—takes his job seriously even if he doesn’t take himself as seriously as some judges do. After arraigning the defendant, Judge Beistline ran through all the rights the defendant was giving up by going through with the agreement she made with the feds to plead guilty to one felony count of conspiring to take bribes. She can’t vote, she can’t run for office, and—notably for a resident of Willow—she can’t own guns. There’s also no parole in the federal system. This means that when a federal judge puts someone in prison for a set amount of time, the actual prison sentence served by the defendant is likely to be much closer to the number pronounced by the judge than often happens in state courts around the country.

Masek sat at the defense table between Rich Curtner and Barb Brink. Curtner is the head Federal Public Defender in Alaska, and Brink was the head Alaska Public Defender before leaving her position in a political dispute and ending up as an investigator for the Federal Public Defender. Brink has been particularly well known for her good rapport with clients. Masek seems to understand what her situation is and has come to some sort of peace with it.

That situation is that Masek took two bribes in the spring of 2003—one from a relative of long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen and one from Bill Allen directly. The first bribe amounted to several thousand dollars and was at least $2,000. (I wrote in an earlier post that each of the two bribes was a payment of $2,000, but for the first bribe the charging document shows that Masek took “several thousand dollars” and then deposited in the bank $2,000 of that amount. Apologies for the error.) The second bribe came the next month, and was for $2,000.

The Power of the Conspiracy Charge and the Way to Squeeze the Juice

Standing out in this case is the timing of the bribes and the way Masek apparently angled to get the second one.

The bribes Masek is going to prison for were paid in 2003. These crimes occurred earlier than the other offenses so far charged in the Alaska public corruption investigation, as Rich Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News pointed out in an interview with the Alaska Public Radio Network. That probe—codenamed “POLAR PEN”—is known to have started by the spring of 2004. As Mauer noted in the radio interview, the bribes Masek took occurred before the feds starting all their tapping of telephones and wiring up of a VECO-rented hotel suite that yielded all those embarrassing tapes played in previous trials.

What’s also interesting about the timing of the Masek case is that the bribes she has admitted taking changed hands in the spring of 2003, and the last act described in the charging document is her seeking more money from VECO executive Rick Smith in November of 2003. Masek was not charged until March 11, 2009. This means that those bribes—and even her last described attempt to solicit one—are all on their face outside the five-year statute of limitations.

The Department of Justice got around this problem by technically charging her not with taking the bribes, but with conspiring to get them paid and to conceal them. The conspiracy charge would stand up against a challenge based on the statute of limitations if the government’s lawyers could show that at least one overt act furthering the conspiracy occurred within five years of the date Masek was charged. Famed Judge Learned Hand called the charge of conspiracy “the darling of the modern prosecutor’s nursery,” and this case helps show why it is such a powerful weapon. (Another way that the feds may have gotten around this problem regarding the statute of limitations would be by securing a tolling agreement with Masek so that she waived the statute of limitations for a specified period.)

Also striking is the way Masek apparently played Allen to get her second cash payment. VECO has been called the political arm of Alaska’s oil industry, and the blunt-speaking Allen was the fist on that arm. Masek solicited her first bribe from the VECO chief in April of 2003 and got it right away from a relative of Allen’s. About three weeks later, the state legislator introduced a bill that would significantly raise oil taxes on the oil companies that were VECO’s major clients.

Allen met with her the next day and worked hard—and successfully—to get Masek to withdraw that legislation. The day after that, Allen paid Masek $2,000 in cash.

Rep. Les Gara, D.-Anchorage and a fierce advocate of higher taxes on the oil industry, was stunned by Masek’s introduction of the bill. The avowedly conservative Masek had never suggested that she favored such a step, and most of Masek’s Republican colleagues in the legislature were dead-set against raising oil taxes.

Gara struggled to figure out Masek’s motivations in introducing and then withdrawing the legislation. "I thought she did a brave thing and must have gotten yelled at and pressured to withdraw the bill," Gara told Rich Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News.

This week’s charging document and plea agreement now shed new light on those odd events in May of 2003. Gara told the Daily News that he now suspects that the whole reason that Masek put the bill in was to get Allen to pay her to drop it.

There are a lot of explanations you could offer for what happened. Masek was never known as a big-time player in the legislature, and “erratic” is one of the kinder words you’d hear to describe her as a lawmaker. Her conduct concerning the oil-tax bill she introduced after taking that first bribe from Allen makes it possible that she considered herself for rent, not for sale. Gara’s interpretation makes the pleasant and mild-mannered woman in court look like an extortionist who shook down Allen. Her sentencing is set for Thursday, May 28, at 9 a.m., and maybe we’ll learn more then.

Administrative Note: Once again, I’ll be on TV tomorrow evening (Sunday) on C-SPAN talking about the Alaska public corruption investigation and the Ted Stevens trial. The first program airs this Sunday, March 15, at 8 p.m. Eastern time and again at 11 p.m. Eastern the same day. (This is the original C-SPAN cable network that focuses on the U.S. House of Representatives.)

1 comment:

Frank said...

Masek was known for taking orders, whether from her husband or Ramona Barnes. She consistently voted against the interests of the Native community but did a "bead and feathers" routine when she thought the situation demanded it.

Barnes was said to be doing the beast with two backs with Bill Weimar. How anyone could get that close to Ramona, who spelled like a spitoon in a really sleazy bar, says something for Weimar's greed.

Bev showed that Mat-Su voters would vote for absolutely anyone with an "R" (Kohring 7 times!) in front of their name and reelected her despite her notorious proclivity for the sauce.