Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why Are Bill Allen and Rick Smith Walking Around Free While the Legislators They Bribed Sit in Prison?

Anchorage, Alaska--

The criticism over the different treatment of key players in the Alaska public corruption investigation has risen recently as another state legislator walked onto a fast conveyor belt to jail for taking bribes from VECO executives who now live in luxury.

The drumbeat intensified last week as the first woman was charged and pleaded guilty in the continuing probe. The sight of former State Rep. Beverly Masek (R.-Willow) preparing for a sentence of 18-24 months for taking bribes from long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen has seemed to be particularly galling.

“Time for Allen to be locked up” is the headline on the Alaska Dispatch piece by Wev Shea, a long-time Anchorage lawyer and commentator who formerly served as the Acting U.S. Attorney in Alaska. Shea portrays Masek as a “weak, young woman” targeted by the “conspiratorial predators” VECO executives Allen and Rick Smith “for their own special oil and gas desires and needs.” Indeed, Shea sees all the state legislators convicted in this investigation as similarly burdened: “Rep. Tom Anderson, Rep. Pete Kott, Rep. Vic Kohring and Sen. John Cowdery were all weak individuals in different ways enamored with power.”

It is admittedly odd to see Bill Allen and Rick Smith live it up while the legislators who got convicted for taking bribes from the former VECO executives sit in prison. Flush with millions of dollars from the sale of VECO, Allen recently purchased a private jet in conjunction with some family members. An article by Richard Mauer in the Anchorage Daily News last summer reported that Allen—an Anchorage resident—has been spending a lot of time at his son’s New Mexico horse ranch. And for at least some of this winter, Rick Smith has been hanging out and golfing in the Palm Springs area.

Meanwhile, Kott and Kohring are in federal prison, Masek will go there as early as this summer, and it is only Cowdery’s terrible health that has kept him in home detention instead of the clink. (Anderson is also in federal prison, but unlike these other state legislators Anderson was convicted for crimes unrelated to VECO.)

It is true that Allen and Smith have not spent all their time hitting the links or lounging around in big houses during the two and a half years that the two men have been cooperating with the government. Each of the disgraced VECO executives has testified in multiple trials as government witnesses.

The Department of Justice would also like you to know that Allen and Smith will eventually go to prison. Each has pleaded guilty to crimes that could bring prison sentences of about nine to 11 years. Those sentences would be substantially longer than any received by a public official convicted so far in this probe, although the continuing cooperation of Allen and Smith may ultimately reduce the time they spend incarcerated.

Today, however, Allen and Smith are free while those convicted of taking their bribes are in federal custody.

As strange as it is to see these different outcomes, these results flow directly from the goal of the unit running the prosecutions and from the power our system gives prosecutors in pursuing that goal. The name of the outfit bringing the charges is the Public Integrity Section, not the Anti-Crooked Businesspeople Squad. As the Department of Justice states, “The Public Integrity Section oversees the federal effort to combat corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials at all levels of government.”

That statement of the Section’s mission draws the line between Bill Allen and Rick Smith on one side and Pete Kott, Vic Kohring, Bev Masek, and John Cowdery on the other. Kott, Kohring, Masek, and Cowdery took an oath as public officials and betrayed that oath. Allen and Smith broke the law and violated their responsibilities as citizens, but they never took on the extra obligations of public servants. (Allen’s one day of service as a presidential elector in 2000 is obviously in a different category.)

The existence of the Public Integrity Section reflects a judgment that it is worse for a public official to take a bribe than for a favor-seeker to pay one, and the disparate treatment of the bribe-takers and the bribers in this investigation illustrates that same judgment. You might think that Bill Allen and Rick Smith have blacker hearts and bigger wallets than Pete Kott, Vic Kohring, Beverly Masek, and John Cowdery and thus should not be last in line to go to jail, but the oath taken by the public official helps explain why that way of thinking does not always control.

Our system also gives great powers to prosecutors—particularly federal prosecutors—and grants prosecutors enormous discretion in how to use those powers. Letting Bill Allen and Rick Smith play while imprisoning a number of those bribed by the two VECO executives shows both our system’s views on the hierarchy of evil and the great confidence we place in those entrusted to bring those evildoers to justice.

Judge Emmet Sullivan is exploring whether federal prosecutors and FBI agents deserved that confidence in the investigation and trial of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, and we should learn more next month. Stay tuned.


Kansan said...

How quickly we forget. Tom Anderson had the same kind of a deal that Allen and Smith had. Rat out your friends and work off your time wearing a wire. When he reneged on the deal, he moved to number one on the arrest and prison list.

The guy who obviously scammed the system was none other than scam artist extraordinaire, Bill Weimar. He piece off the bribable and pretended to cooperate with prosecutors, but didn't give them anything. When he's finished his six months in tennis camp, he'll be back in Montana on house arrest. In his case, that would be a $9.7 million dollar house, which the people of Alaska paid for without being aware of same.

rcbrandon said...

This is a good question. I hope at least part of the answer is that the Feds are still going to use Bill & Rick to get that little weasle BEN Stevens! Another good question is why do we have a felon's name on our airport?