It's a busy week in the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption, and on my own getaway day I offer brief observations on three major developments.
Vic Kohring's plea bargain deprives us of what promised to be an entertaining (if sad) re-trial. Confronted with damning evidence on tape, the former legislator's lawyers would probably have been pushed toward what one expert in public corruption cases has called the "I'm an idiot defense." The theme likely would have been that Vic Kohring's head was as empty as his heart was full of love, a combination that made him incapable of committing the crimes he was charged with. Kohring's attorney at the original trial compared him to Andy Griffith's character in the 1960s television show of the same name; his new set of lawyers at the re-trial would more been likely to paint him as similar to the cartoon world's Baby Huey or Gilligan from the Gilligan's Island program.
This defense's appeal is shown in Kohring's hometown newspaper. Frontiersman editorials have been tough on the former lawmaker and his "sordid" criminal problems, and today's offering followed that pattern by calling on him to apologize to the public for taking a bribe.
But even while harshly criticizing his conduct, the editorial repeated what I have frequently heard about this defendant: Many people who know Kohring suggest that he had a hard time understanding that he was violating the law, or at the very least think he was far from evil. "We don't think Kohring was a corrupt, power-mad lawmaker eager to sell his influence to the highest bidder," the Wasilla-based newpaper editorialized. "We think he was a naive man caught up in sinister business doings beyond his ken."
I continue to believe that Vic Kohring, like his fellow former Alaska legislator Pete Kott, will not be sentenced to any more prison time at the back-to-back hearings set for Friday morning in Anchorage federal court. As blogger Philip Munger suggests, it is possible that each of those defendants will get some time in a halfway house--if that occurred, it strikes me that the location would likely be in Alaska.
A lawyer who tried hard to put Kohring and other "POLAR PEN" defendants in prison is breathing a lot easier today. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports today that government attorney Edward Sullivan has returned to the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section and its caseload of prosecuting public corruption cases. NPR quotes Sullivan's lawyer claim that his client has been "exonerated" by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the agency's internal watchdog. OPR launched an investigation into several government attorneys in the wake of the collapse of the botched Ted Stevens prosecution. Sullivan was sent to a relatively obscure post at the DoJ's Office of International Affairs during that investigation, a move that looked like exile to a backwater to some observers. Sullivan's return to the Public Integrity Section to work on some high-profile cases allowed his lawyer to label him as "vindicated" and the Wall Street Journal to describe him as "back in the saddle."
Two of the other prosecutors under the gun in that investigation--former Public Integrity chief William Welch and Brenda Morris, former principal deputy chief of the section--are continuing to push for lifting of a contempt finding against them entered during the implosion of the Ted Stevens case. Much of the argument at a court hearing yesterday centered on the legal question of whether the contempt was criminal or civil. Attention also turned, however, to the investigations of the investigators, the last remaining threads in the long-running federal probe into Alaska public corruption: the investigations of the investigators. In addition to the ethics probe run by OPR, the trial judge in the Ted Stevens case appointed Washington, D.C.-based attorney Henry Schuelke to conduct a rare criminal investigation into the conduct of six prosecutors in that case, including Morris, the lead prosecutor at that trial. It's been more than two and a half years since Schuelke's probe was announced in April of 2009.
A judge at the oral argument yesterday asked the lawyer for Morris "You're happy to put your fate in the hands of Mr. Schuelke?"
The response: "Yes."
[Tweaked to correct a name.]