Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Feds Move Forward

Anchorage, Alaska--

So much for the chatter that the Department of Justice's investigation into Alaska public corruption has stalled out.

The last 43 hours have seen:

· a calmer session in the often fiery post-trial litigation in the Ted Stevens case;

· a sentencing that puts former state Sen. John Cowdery in home confinement for six months;

· and—most dramatically—a plea agreement on a newly announced charge that will put former state Rep. Bev Masek in prison on a sentence of 18 to 24 months.

Let’s go in chronological order:

The New Team Calms It Down in the Ted Stevens Case

Apparently giving the new squad of prosecutors time to get their bearings, Judge Emmet Sullivan oversaw a status conference noticeably less entertaining than some reporters figured on. This expectation of fireworks flowed from a series of post-trial hearings and orders in which the judge had lambasted Department of Justice lawyers, culminating in his stunning decision to hold three high-ranking prosecutors in contempt and the designation of a new team to handle allegations of government misconduct.

The head of the new team, Paul O’Brien, told the judge that they are gathering information about FBI Special Agent Chad Joy’s complaint charging improper behavior by a fellow FBI agent and prosecutor and were turning it over to the defense. The judge noted that after the trial the case had been “just as active” as it was before and during the trial and ordered status reports from both sides before another status conference on April 15.

That next status conference would be more than six months after a jury convicted then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of seven felony counts of failing to disclose gifts on Senate disclosure forms. (An explanation of the status of the Ted Stevens case appears in the next post.)

The judge released a trial balloon in the courtroom to deal with the highly unusual Joy complaint and the much more common post-trial statement by prosecution witness Dave Anderson, who has alleged that prosecutors knowingly presented false testimony. Judge Sullivan suggested that both Joy and Anderson testify in court to help him sort out their accusations.

Anderson is a speed bump for the prosecutors in this case. Joy could still be a one-way trip to the ditch for the government.

(Hat tip to Erika Bolstad of the Anchorage Daily News and Libby Casey of the Alaska Public Radio Network.)

John Cowdery Seems Detached as He Gets Sentenced

Three hours later and more than 3,000 miles away, former Sen. John Cowdery (R.-Anchorage) sat in a wheelchair and listened as he was sentenced for conspiring with long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen to bribe another legislator over oil tax legislation. (Although unnamed in the charging documents, that other legislator was Sen. Donny Olson (D.-Nome), who never got the money and has not been charged.)

Cowdery’s poor health led Judge Ralph Beistline to make the sentence six months in home confinement instead of the perhaps two years in prison he would have received for this crime. Cowdery was also ordered to pay a fine of $25,000.

That health is so bad that the court noted that the argument between the defense attorney and the prosecutors over six months versus 12 months of home confinement was silly in that Cowdery was essentially facing home confinement for the rest of his life anyway. In an apparently unguarded moment, the judge predicted in court that Cowdery would not live to see the end of his three years on probation following the home confinement. Judge Beistline then caught himself and made a statement indicating a sentiment of common human decency regarding the defendant’s remaining time on earth.

The former 14-year legislator showed no apparent interest in the 22-minute hearing, and twice turned down an offer from the court to give a personal statement before sentencing. Nobody apologized on Cowdery’s behalf—not him, not his lawyer, not the writers of the more than two dozen letters filed on his behalf. More than one of his friends suggested in the letters that he had not committed a crime and only pleaded guilty to spare himself and his family the cost and stress of a trial, and one friend characterized Cowdery’s offense as merely introducing Allen to another legislator over breakfast. Those writing the letters—who included several current and former legislators, lobbyists, and former Gov. Bill Sheffield—emphasized Cowdery’s record as a successful contractor, his contributions in public office, and his devotion to his wife and extended family as well as his ill health.

You could read Cowdery’s odd affect in court more than one way. Even his friends might say that the 79-year-old Cowdery can seem taciturn and gruff in public. The prosecutors might argue that Cowdery’s attitude in court reflected his attitude toward the crime: cold and callous. Or it just might be that this man’s diseases are so multiple and advanced that they leave him removed from what a mere judge can do to him.

(I could not attend this sentencing hearing, so thanks goes to the coverage of Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News as well as to Joe McKinnon, a lawyer and former legislator who attended the Cowdery sentencing at my request and graciously shared his impressions.)

Beverly Masek Joins the Jail-Bound

The day after Cowdery’s sentencing, the feds showed that their POLAR PEN probe can still hit new targets. Documents were filed in court charging former state Rep. Beverly Masek (R.-Willow) with conspiring to take bribes and showing her agreement to plead guilty to that crime. The bribes came from Allen (one of them through a relative of the oil-services firm chief), and they totaled at least $4,000. The purpose of the bribes was to advance VECO’s interests regarding the oil taxes paid by the major oil producers VECO worked for.

Masek sold out cheaply and stupidly. This is a pattern seen over and over with the state legislators this investigation has put in prison.

In the documents filed as part of her deal with the government, Masek admits that she took two cash payments of $2,000 apiece, and then each time immediately deposited the money in the bank—leaving a clear paper trail.

The two-time winner of the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival’s Mountain Mother contest also twice solicited a legislative staff member to seek money for her from Rick Smith, Allen’s chief political lieutenant--thereby creating another witness. (Smith told that legislative aide the same thing Allen and Smith had told Masek directly: The way to get Masek a truly large cash payment was for the four-time Iditarod finisher to start mushing again so that VECO could launder a big bribe through its sponsorship of her dog team and dog kennel.)

Unlike Cowdery, Masek will be going to federal prison for getting mixed up in bribes with Allen. Masek’s plea agreement allows her to argue for leniency based on “alcoholism, financial and emotional distress, and/or situational depression due to her divorce,” but those factors are clearly not going to be enough to keep her from a substantial period of incarceration. In the plea agreement, the former 10-year legislator acknowledges that she faces a probable sentence of 18-24 months in prison.

The announcement about Beverly Masek means that the Alaska public corruption investigation has resulted in criminal charges against 12 people, and that 11 of them will stand convicted. (The 12th defendant is former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch (R.-Juneau), who is still pursuing a pre-trial appeal that may well go to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Seven of those 11 people have become—or have agreed to become—felons because of their dealings with Bill Allen. The eighth of those 11 people is Bill Allen himself.

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