Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beverly Masek: Icon, Crook, or Cipher?


The judge could have a tough time figuring out who he’s sentencing tomorrow morning in the case of U.S. v. Beverly Masek.

Is the defendant the person the voters knew, the tough musher and charismatic candidate who won five terms in the Alaska State Legislature?

Or is she the greedy crook the prosecutors want the judge to see, the criminal who sold her public office for cash bribes?

Or is Beverly Masek the sad figure painted by her lawyer, the drunk and depressed pauper who—despite serving for years as one of Alaska’s 60 legislators—had no power over anything around her?

The Icon the Voters Knew

Ever since she blitzed to victory in 1994, Bev Masek the Icon has been well-known to voters in her rural-tilting district north of Anchorage. She was the Native woman from the small village of Anvik who four times finished the Iditarod—“the Last Great Race,” the marathon dog-sled competition that runs each year across more than 1,000 miles of the Lost Frontier. Not content with that record, she also won the “Mountain Woman Contest” in Talkeetna.

Running as a 31-year-old first-time candidate, the Willow Republican won her first term in 1994. Rep. Masek crusaded against drug use by Native youth, and even served as a spokesperson for a hospital well-known for its treatment of patients with psychiatric and substance abuse problems. She was re-elected four times before being defeated in 2004 in the Republican primary. Her loss came in the wake of ethics complaints from a legislative staff member concerning her financial improprieties, although that misconduct did not involve the crime for which she will be sentenced tomorrow.

The Crook the Prosecutors Portray

The defendant pleaded guilty to a bad set of facts, so the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum gets to be short and punchy. In her ninth year as an elected Alaska State Representative, the defendant approached long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen in April of 2003 to discuss her financial difficulties. Masek then “accepted a cash payment of several thousand dollars from a relative of Allen’s” in an Anchorage restaurant, “knowing that there were matters pending before the Alaska State Legislature that were important to Allen and VECO’s business interests.”

Less than a month after taking this first cash payment, Rep. Masek introduced a bill that would substantially raise taxes on Alaska’s major oil producers, better known to Bill Allen as the outfits that paid most of VECO’s bills. Bill Allen met with the lawmaker the next day and persuaded her to withdraw that legislation. The day after that, Bill Allen gave Rep. Masek another $2,000 in cash, “which the defendant accepted knowing that it was given, in part, because of her agreement to withdraw the bill.”

And Masek didn’t stop there. Within months of the second cash payment, she again asked Bill Allen for money, asked VECO Vice President Rick Smith for consulting work with VECO, and told her legislative aide to meet with Smith to seek additional money from VECO.

Now that Masek is being sentenced based on her plea of guilty to the crime of conspiracy to commit bribery, the prosecution wants U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to send Masek to prison for a significant period. “[A] sentence [of 18-24 months of incarceration] is needed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, provide just punishment, and afford adequate deterrence.”

The government lawyers also point to Masek’s former position as “a high-ranking elected public official for the State of Alaska,” and assert that “crimes such as the defendant’s have eroded the public’s faith in the Alaska State Legislature and their elected leaders.”

The Cipher Her Lawyer Paints

There’s no bad person here, Masek’s lawyer says: His client is a remorseful victim who needs rehabilitation above all. She was vulnerable because of the Four Ds: Divorce, Depression, Deprivation, and Drunkenness. Although the word does not seem to appear in the 31 pages Federal Public Defender Rich Curtner filed on Masek’s behalf, the sentiment that he really wants to engender is pity.

She got a bad husband and then fell in with a bad crowd in and around the Legislature, say various letter-writers to the court. Despite being a lawmaker for 10 years, Masek seems to have always lacked the capacity to do the job. She then fell so much farther that she became almost a non-entity in the Capitol and even in her own life. Her former lawyer writes that Masek “was largely controlled by other people.” A
legislative employee who observed the Willow Republican saw her as “very heavily controlled during her tenure in office,” adding that Masek’s legislative staff “was picked to further an agenda I don’t know if she agreed with or supported.”

Who were these master manipulators who called the shots? Her lawyer doesn’t say directly, but the package of pleadings he filed points the finger at three people whom he wants the judge to think were running—and ruining—Masek’s life: her lousy (now former) husband, her former legislative mentor Rep. Ramona Barnes (R.-Anchorage), and Bill Allen. (Note that Masek’s former husband is apparently now living in Latin America, Barnes is dead, and Allen (whom one of Masek’s friends calls “‘the devil of the decade’”) is scheduled to be sentenced next month to a much longer prison sentence than Masek conceivably faces.)

Plagued by depression and alcohol abuse caused by her divorce and her related financial hardship, Masek was a personal wreck by the time she committed the crime she is being sentenced for. Her defense attorney quotes her as telling her psychiatrist that frequently during the 2003 legislative session she “‘did not really know what was happening around her.’”

In addition to arguing that her crime was situational and will not recur, Masek’s lawyer is asking the judge to go easy on her because going to prison will harm her recovery from alcoholism and major depression and because another state legislator sentenced in this federal probe—ex-Sen. John Cowdery—got off with home detention.

The defense’s sentencing memorandum says that “It would be a tragic footnote in the Alaska corruption scandal that amidst the storm of corruption in Alaska’s legislature, at this point the one person who is serving time in a federal prison is a Native Alaskan woman who was suffering from depression and alcoholism, who accepted four
thousand dollars from Bill Allen.”

Note that this statement is subject to two factual objections, one major and one more minor. As Rich Mauer pointed out in the Anchorage Daily News, former State Rep. Tom Anderson would certainly take exception from his cell to the proposition that putting Masek in prison would make her the only person incarcerated as a result of the federal investigation. And the prosecution seems to suggest that the combined bribes to Masek totaled at least $4,000, and were not necessarily only that amount.

Based on all the factors listed above, Masek’s attorney seeks a sentence of three years of probation that would focus on rehabilitation, which might include six months of residential treatment and/or home confinement.

What Judge Beistline Is Likely to Do

All indications are that the prosecutors are likely to walk out of the courtroom happier than the defense counsel and the defendant. Based on his previous in-court statements about the case and his record in sentencing, Judge Beistline is likely to give the government much of what it wants tomorrow morning, which means that Beverly Masek will be going to prison for well over a year.

Judge Beistline has heard a lot of sad stories as a judge that have certainly included claims of alcoholism, poverty, and divorce-fueled depression, so those arguments are unlikely to make him go easy in a case of a public official who has admitted repeatedly violating the public trust.

The court will probably dismiss the defense’s “Bill Allen lured me in” contention by noting that ex-Rep. Masek seemed to pursue—or even extort—Allen to get the second cash payment by introducing a bill as almost a bargaining chip.

To the claims that sending Masek to prison would harm her rehabilitation, the judge will cite the need to hammer her to deter other legislators from taking bribes in the future. To put it another way, the court will see it as more important to make an example of Masek that it is to maximize the chances that her life will be as good as possible from now on.

Judge Beistline is likely to reject the defense claim that the fact that ex-Sen. Cowdery escaped prison means that Masek should get the same treatment. The court will probably point to the facts that she took cash, while Cowdery got no money personally. In addition, the court will likely see Cowdery as far sicker than her.

Finally, Masek getting caught drunk twice while on conditions of release in this case will be seen as cutting against her attorney’s claim that she has a strong desire to kick her alcohol problem.

We’ll know tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Howard said...

Cliff -- I really appreciate the combination of reporting, summary and insight you bring to this story. It makes it easier and more nuanced to view developments from a distance. Nice job.


Cliff Groh said...

Thanks, Howard. You were a good editor and role model in my early 20s when I got out of college and went to work at the Alaska Advocate. Among other things, I do my best to convey my knowledge and experience as a lawyer without being as boring as some attorneys have been--

Cliff Groh