Tuesday, December 20, 2011

House Ethics Committee Dismisses Fundraising Complaint Against Don Young

Los Angeles, California--

The U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee has announced that Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska) will not face sanctions based on a complaint about fundraising for his legal defense fund.   The panel did, however, announce that the case had triggered a change in the rules to prevent future violations of the spirit of the restrictions.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Several U.S. Senators Call for Justice Department to Fire Prosecutors and Apologize to Family of Ted Stevens


In the wake of the bungled prosecution of then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, several U.S. Senators called for the Justice Department to apologize to the family of their late former colleague and fire the prosecutors responsible for failure to turn over evidence to the defense as required.

The strongest statements came from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, a close friend of Stevens who served as a character witness during the five-week trial in 2008.   Hatch told the newspaper The Hill that the Justice Department prosecuted the case against Stevens "vindictively" and urged the disbarment of the government lawyers responsible.    Hatch said the prosecutors ignored exculpatory evidence that "should have said to them, 'This man should never have been indicted to begin with.'" 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., said that "If you look at the particulars of that case, the system melted down and trophy-hunting became sort of the focus."  

The Hill noted that some Senators contacted by the newspaper would not offer public comment on the Stevens case but suggested that the failed prosecution had "made the agency gun-shy to go after other lawmakers accused of wrongdoing."   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Appellate Court Determines that Judge's Finding of Contempt Against Ted Stevens Prosecutors Was Civil, Not Criminal


Ruling that the contempt in question was civil rather than criminal, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the trial judge did not err in finding that two prosecutors in the Ted Stevens case had committed contempt without providing the pair the procedural protections required when charging someone with criminal contempt.   U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan had made the contempt finding against William Welch and Brenda Morris--two attorneys who formerly supervised the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section--during post-trial litigation over discovery failures in the case.

The contempt finding was previously lifted, and this litigation over that finding appears to be over.  


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Did Rod Blagojevich Get Sentenced to 14 Years in Prison?


When my wife—a nurse—saw yesterday that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got a 14-year sentence for public corruption, she said “Is that all?”   When her former prosecutor husband heard the same news, I thought “That sounds like a long time for a guy society cannot be afraid of.”   Here’s an explanation which attempts to reconcile those different reactions.

This sentence will turn out to be longer than you might think—there is no parole in the federal system, and a defendant sentenced under federal law must serve 85 percent of the sentence.   That means that Blagojevich will serve almost 12 years of that 14-year sentence.

This was a significant victory for the prosecution, which simplified its presentation for the jury on a retrial after the first trial produced a hung jury as to most counts.

The length of the sentence reflected a number of factors.    The former Governor stood convicted of serious offenses:   18 felony counts that included wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion, conspiracy, and lying to the FBI.   Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama.   He shook down the CEO of a children’s hospital.   And it’s never a good thing for somebody being sentenced when the judge concludes that that the defendant committed perjury (“The jury didn’t believe him, and neither did I”).  

Also going against Blagojevich was his state’s sad history in this area.  Illinois has been a cesspool of public corruption for decades, with three previous Governors being convicted of such crimes over the past 40 years. (A fourth went to prison for felonies committed after he left office).   Indeed, Blagovevich’s immediate predecessor as Governor is serving a 6.5-year sentence, a term in prison that was apparently insufficient to deter the next man to fill the chair.

Blagojevich had a lot of opportunities to learn the contours and consequences of public corruption—he served as a prosecutor, state legislator, and Member of the U.S. House before becoming Governor in 2003.

Most people sentenced in most courtrooms have nothing to do with public corruption, making it difficult to evaluate sentences by ordinary standards.   There is no need to keep Blagojevich in prison to prevent him from abusing the public trust again, so isolation or restraint for public safety is not a factor in sentencing him.    If society is not locking up Blagojevich because we are scared of him, why a 14-year sentence?  

The judge imposed that length of sentence to set boundaries to show the public what public corruption is and to scare other public officials away from committing acts of public corruption.    “The harm here is not measured in the value of property or money,” U.S. District Judge James Zagel said.   “The harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”

The judge accepted the logic of the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.    That document quoted a legal decision’s statement that “Government corruption breeds cynicism and mistrust of elected officials.   It causes the public to disengage from the democratic process because…the public begins to think of politics as ‘only for the insiders.’”

The average annual cost of incarceration of a federal inmate now runs well over $25,000 per year, so keeping Blagojevich will set back the taxpayers well over a quarter million dollars.    I recognize the unusual nature of Blagojevich’s case, but financial considerations in imprisonment should play more into our thinking about sentencing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Non-Profit News Outlets Will Help NBC-Owned TV Stations to Dig Deeper and Smarter


Brian Lamb said three years ago that I was a sign of a trend, and news from yesterday makes the C-SPAN founder look even more prescient.

The Los Angeles Times reported that local TV stations around the country are teaming up with non-profit news organizations to increase the stations' investigative, enterprise, and analytical journalism.   The 10 local stations involved are owned and operated by the NBC network.  

The collaborations between the commercial TV stations and the non-commercial outfits like public broadcasting stations and the on-line investigative operation ProPublica are aimed at getting at more serious and complicated stories.   Examples of what ProPublica calls "deep dives" could include examinations of the quality and finances of public schools and conflicts of interest involving doctors and drug companies.

Brian Lamb's reference to me as a harbinger for the media came shortly after my stay in Washington, D.C. covering the Ted Stevens trial for five weeks in the fall of 2008.   I was lucky enough to be able to stay with friends who had just rented an apartment about a mile from the courthouse, and they were kind enough to have a dinner waiting for me when I got back each night.   I posted my coverage of the trial on this blog, and I made just as much money covering that trial as I have from modeling and stand-up comedy combined.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Legislation to Toughen Federal Laws Against Public Corruption Moving in Congress


The Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reported out a bill yesterday that would address a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last year on the honest-services fraud statute.    The legislation is H.R. 2572, "The Clean Up Government Act of 2011."

You can find a transcript of yesterday's hearing here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Have We Reached Peak Lawyer? (Is Law School a Good Idea for Many of the People Pursuing It?)


This blog post assembles the evidence that the demand for legal services in America is declining while the number of people who want to go law school has stayed high.   Specifically, the number of law school graduates each year is approximately double the number of available legal jobs, a number of which will be taken by experienced attorneys who are now unemployed.   Law school for many entering students is now a consumer fraud, particularly for those going to lower-ranked schools and especially for those who end up taking on tens--or hundreds--of thousands of dollars of debt to attend.   It may even be true--as this post suggests--that a law degree may make some law school graduates generally less employable than they would be if they had not slogged through those three years in school.

A big part of the problem is delusion on a mass scale.  Too many people hear the stories of newly minted attorneys making $160,000 the first year out of law school and see themselves in that picture.   There are people like that, just like there are attorneys working at large law firms for more than a decade who feel pressured by their partners to bill $600 per hour for their work.   But the reality is that the attorneys raking in those kind of big bucks are a minority that is facing strong pressure and resistance from clients who are increasingly refusing to pay those high hourly rates.   Set aside questions of whether even high-income lawyers find the work excessive or boring, on a purely financial level the reality is that there are a significant number of unemployed lawyers and a large number of lawyers with some work who are struggling to get by.   

Going to law school was a good decision for me, and it might be a good decision for others.   But caveat emptor, folks.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, who provided some of the title of this blog post.   

[UPDATED for clarity and to correct a number.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ted Stevens Would Have Liked this Newspaper Story


Washington Post, posted yesterday:   "Despite Earmark Ban, Lawmakers Try to Give Money to Hundreds of Pet Projects."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Media Notes: Lisa Murkowski and I Appear on TV Talking about Sexual Abuse Charges for Bill Allen


KTVA, Channel 11 in Anchorage, has posted its story on the new call for Bill Allen's prosecution on charges of transportation of an underage girl across state lines for immoral purposes.

Note that I used to prosecute child sexual cases for the State of Alaska.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Traffic Cop in the Alaska Winter: Notes on News of the Day


U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has written the U.S. Department of Justice seeking "an objective, thorough and independent" investigation of why the federal government has not prosecuted--and has apparently blocked the State of Alaska's prosecution of--Bill Allen for allegedly bringing an underage girl across state lines for "immoral and exploitative purposes."  

KTVA-TV, Anchorage's Channel 11, interviewed me about this letter, and that station's report should appear tonight.  My earlier thoughts on Sen. Murkowski's question are here.

The U.S. House Ethics Committee will decide by January 11 whether it will investigate U.S. Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska) on a matter that apparently involves contributions to his legal defense fund.    

Amanda Coyne of Alaska Dispatch has a substantial piece exploring whether the collapse of the prosecution of then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska) will lead to reforms aimed at stemming prosecutorial abuses of the discovery process.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Groh on the Radio: Extended Interview on the Week's News on "POLAR PEN"


Here's a link to a discussion I had with reporter Robert Woolsey that goes over the investigation of the Ted Stevens prosecutors and the Ted Stevens trial.   It comes from the website of the Sitka public radio station KCAW.   Listening to it this morning, I was struck that this is the kind of long-form coverage of complicated issues that only public broadcasting would put on the airwaves.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

KTVA Channel 11 in Anchorage Posts Police Files on Investigations into Bill Allen's Alleged Crimes with Underage Girls


KTVA, the Channel 11 TV station in Anchorage, has posted files from the Anchorage Police Department generated by  investigations into crimes involving minors allegedly committed by former Alaska powerbroker, tycoon, and convicted briber Bill Allen.   The station's website also features a piece by Bill McAllister in both video and print form that asks the question "Did the federal government sell out victims of sexual abuse in order to nail some politicians for taking cheap bribes?"

Given that it's Thanksgiving, I don't have time to answer that question or set out my different perspective on it except to point you to my earlier blog post on the related topic of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski asking Attorney General Eric Holder why Allen has not been prosecuted for sex crimes.    That post ends with the question with this question for Sen. Murkowski:   "When will you start pressing the Attorney General to explain why the federal government has not prosecuted Ben Stevens, the former President of the Alaska State Senate whom Bill Allen pleaded guilty to bribing?"    

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mark Allen's Ex-Wife Accused of Murder


If you have extra time over the Thanksgiving holiday, you might want to check out this racy tale in the Seattle Weekly about how the former wife of Mark Allen--Bill Allen's son--is facing a murder charge in Washington state.  

The story contains details of Mark Allen's life after his horse  won the 2009 Kentucky Derby.   A former 50 to 1 longshot, Mine That Bird now has its own website and is "the subject of a new series of graphic novels for kids and a soon-to-be animated movie."  

The article--dated November 16--does get at least one detail wrong about Bill Allen, the former CEO of the now-defunct multinational oil-services giant VECO.   The piece says that Bill Allen "still faces prison time, but hasn't been sentenced."    In fact, Bill Allen was scheduled to be released yesterday following a period in custody that included time in federal prison and a stay in a halfway house in his home state of New Mexico.      

This Seattle Weekly piece joins other media coverage in giving you a feeling that Mark Allen has lived a more, um, colorful life than most.   He met his ex-wife--variously described in the article as "leggy" and "formerly drop-dead-gorgeous"--in 2006.   This was the same year his father became a federal informant and apparently began negotiating a plea agreement that spared Mark from facing prosecution for bribery, and the year before the sale of VECO apparently netted Mark Allen $30 million.   Mark Allen met his wife when she chauffeured him in a limousine in Las Vegas she started driving after competing as Miss Washington in a beauty contest held in that gambling metropolis.    

Happy Thanksgiving.   As another holiday gift for you, I'll repeat what I told a reporter this morning.   The odds are higher that it will hit 85 degrees in Alaska tomorrow than there will be any prosecutions of the prosecutors for any acts committed in the investigations of the "POLAR PEN" public corruption scandals.   Despite today's editorial in the Anchorage Daily News calling for either for a prosecution of Bill Allen for child abuse charges or an explanation of his non-prosecution, the multimillionaire former tycoon and powerbroker will not be charged for any crimes involving underaged girls that allegedly occurred before August 30, 2006, the day he started cooperating with the federal government in its probe of Alaska public corruption.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bill Allen Will Escape Prosecution for Crimes Involving Underage Minors


It looks very much like Bill Allen will skate on charges involving sexual abuse of minors.    The State of Alaska's top prosecutor said that absent new information, the ex-CEO of the now-defunct oil services giant VECO will not be prosecuted by the state on the allegations of sex with underage girls.   The federal government has already said that it will take a pass.   

Richard Svobodny, deputy attorney general, told the Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage's KTVA Channel 11 that a major problem with state prosecution of Allen for sexual abuse of minors was insufficient evidence to prove that he had sex with a girl 15 years of age or younger.   Setting aside exceptions that don't apply to Allen, the age of consent under Alaska state law is 16. 

Svobodny said that his review of the evidence involving "five or so" underage females indicated, however, that there was a good case to be made against Allen on federal charges under the Mann Act for transporting a person under the age of 18 across state lines for purposes of prostitution.   One of Allen's accusers told investigators that he brought her multiple times from Seattle to Anchorage for sex when she was 16.

There will be no federal prosecution of Allen for crimes with underage girls, either.   The state lawyer told the Daily News that federal prosecutors never explicitly said why they would not allow Allen to be prosecuted under the Mann Act, even when the State of Alaska asked permission to have a state attorney to be cross-designated to bring the federal charge.    Svobodny said that federal officials alluded to Allen's conviction and sentence on federal public corruption charges.  

In addition to this "We already nailed this guy" proposition suggesting concerns about resource allocation, rough justice, or both, another clue about the lack of future federal or state prosecution of Bill Allen is to be found in KTVA's account.   The TV station reported that "Svobodny says there were impediments to bringing state charges against Allen, either for public corruption or for sexual encounters with teenage girls...."

Those "impediments" for the State of Alaska might include the statute of limitations as to public corruption charges and inadequate corroboration regarding sexual acts with girls then under 16 as to sexual abuse of minor charges under state law.    For both the federal and state governments, however, the "can of worms" issue could be another "impediment" to any new criminal charges against Allen.    Any additional charges against Allen by any government for crimes committed before August 30, 2006 --his "flip day"--would have to address the practical and legal issues created by a full airing of the conversations between Allen and federal officials when he started as a cooperating witness and informant.  

(A bonus--perhaps--to clicking on the link for KTVA is some footage of me discussing the court order issued yesterday about the special counsel's investigation of the prosecutors involved in the Ted Stevens trial.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Interesting Discussions Available from the Book Tour for Crude Awakening


Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger's series of media events to promote their new book Crude Awakening--a tour of recent political events on the Last Frontier, including the public corruption scandals--has included both an online chat on www.firedoglake.com and an appearance on the Alaska Public Radio Network's talk show "Talk of Alaska."   I learned things from both of them.

TV News


I'll be on KTVA Channel 11 tonight at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m. talking about the court order on the investigation into the Ted Stevens prosecutors.   I was interviewed by veteran Alaska journalist Bill McAllister.

UPDATED WITH MORE NEWS AND SPECULATION--Judge Sullivan Announces Special Counsel Found "Widespread" and "At Times Intentional" Misconduct by Ted Stevens Prosecutors, but Recommends No Prosecution for the Prosecutors


The trial judge in the Ted Stevens case has issued an order summarizing a report by special counsel investigating whether prosecutors involved in that case should be prosecuted for criminal contempt of court.    U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan states that special counsel "concluded that the investigation and prosecution of Senator Stevens 'were permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated his defense and his testimony, and seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government's key witness...'" 

Judge Sullivan states, however, that Special Counsel Henry F. Schuelke, III does not recommend charging anyone for criminal contempt because the trial judge never gave a specific "clear and unequivocal" order for the prosecutors to follow the law on sharing evidence with the defense (a process known as "discovery" in the law).   

The judge will allow the review of the report by the Department of Justice, "the subject attorneys," and the lawyers for Senator Stevens before deciding how much to release.    Although that review process will run on at least until January, Judge Sullivan's order makes clear his desire to release to the public as much of the report as possible.

Those are the headlines from today's 12-page order.   Now for some details and analysis:

1.   This order and the report it is based on are blistering for those involved with the investigation and prosecution of Ted Stevens.    According to the order, Schuelke and his co-investigator William B. Shields “found that at least some of the concealment was willful and intentional, and related to many of the issues raised by the defense during the course of the Stevens trial.”   Judge Sullivan's order says that special counsel found "significant, widespread, and at times intentional misconduct."

2.    Although the report does not further describe any of the information that was improperly withheld from the defense, it is clear that much of it has not been officially disclosed.    It is also clear that some of that information relates to allegations of sexual abuse of minor(s) by Bill Allen, that person only referenced in the report as "the government's key witness." 

3.    The announced decision not to prosecute any prosecutors for criminal contempt based on the lack of a "clear and unequivocal" order from the trial judge to the prosecutors to follow the law on discovery seems--with all due respect--to be a dodge.    A better way to understand the lack of prosecution comes in the report's use of the word "systematic" to describe the discovery failures.   The collapse of the Ted Stevens prosecution produced an orgy of fingerpointing among the government attorneys involved, and some of those fingers pointed at the cultural attitudes about discovery within the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section.    Veteran Washington lawyer Schuelke may have decided it was too difficult--or unfair--to single out individual prosecutors for prosecution in this situation.  

Additionally, the suicide last year of former Ted Stevens prosecutor Nicholas Marsh may have brought more complications to efforts to hold any government attorney criminally responsible for the misconduct found in the Schuelke report.   Some of the remaining prosecutors under fire seemed susceptible to the temptation to dump it all on the dead guy, and that possible defense might have been a factor in stopping any prosecution of a prosecutor for criminal contempt.   

The judge's order includes a footnote stating "Mr. Schuelke 'offer[s] no opinion as to whether a prosecution for Obstruction of Justice under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1503 might lie against one or more of the subject attorneys and might meet the standard enunciated in 9-27.220 of the Principles of Federal Prosecution.'"    Although this footnote seems to kick the ball into the Justice Department's court, this blogger says that no prosecutor in the Ted Stevens case will face any prosecution for any offense related to this matter.

4.   The court's order sets out deadlines for a process to release various materials.   Those sealed materials include transcripts and pleadings in the cases of former state legislators Pete Kott and Vic Kohring as well as Ted Stevens.   The order also references materials from the prosecution of former Anchorage businessman Josef Boehm.   That case involved Bambi Tyree, whom Allen is alleged to have had sexual relations with when Tyree was underage.

5.   The judge really wants to release as much as possible of this 500-page report, for which Schuelke and Shields reviewed more than 150,000 pages of documents and conducted  numerous witness interviews and 12 depositions over two and a half years.   About a third of the 12-page court order is devoted to laying out arguments and legal precedents justifying why the report should be made public.    This order sets up a big battle over disclosure, as the Justice Department and some or all of the attorneys whose conduct is scrutinized will not want some of the report released.

6.  In addition to the probe by the special counsel appointed by Judge Sullivan, the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility ("OPR") has conducted a separate and parallel investigation in its role as DoJ's internal ethics watchdog.    The Associated Press reported today that "a lawyer familiar with the investigation" said that OPR's draft report found that Department of Justice attorneys Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, as well as FBI agent Mary Beth Kepner, "engaged in misconduct" in the Ted Stevens trial.   The AP report has similar information to an NPR report last year.    Although Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that OPR "had just about finalized" its report, the AP reported today that "lawyers familiar with that investigation" said that it remained open.     Whatever the status of the OPR report, it is far more likely that significant portions of the court-ordered special counsel report conducted by Schuelke and Shields will be released publicly than it is that the Justice Department will make available the OPR report.   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CORRECTION--Bill Allen Gets Released Next Week


I got my Tuesdays mixed up as I read the Associated Press article referenced in my last post.   Bill Allen is scheduled to be released next Tuesday (as opposed to yesterday).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bill Allen Reportedly to Be Released from Federal Custody


The Associated Press reports that Federal Bureau of Prisons show that convicted briber Bill Allen is scheduled to be released from custody today.    The long-time CEO of the now-defunct oil-services multinational corporation VECO and Alaska powerbroker had been in a halfway house in New Mexico, the state in which he was born and his son has a ranch.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Similarities in the Fall of Two Icons


It is a sadly familiar story.       

A man starts with little and rises to the top of his profession.   He becomes a national legend with record-breaking longevity in his field.    He is renowned for his power and good works.   He towers over the landscape, earning the admiration, affection, and love of many people he has never met.  By the time he reaches his 80s, he is an icon within his home region, where his success makes him a one-man economic powerhouse.   Monuments are named after him, and he seems untouchable. 

Less attractively, his triumphs over several decades seems to produce an arrogance and a sense of entitlement.   He ages in place to the point that his old friends have all died or fallen away, leaving him without any peer around him who will tell him he is wrong or is making a misjudgment.   He becomes so identified with the institution he has served that it appears to become difficult for him to distinguish between the interests of that institution and his own interests.    A political tone-deafness creeps in.   He may even want to establish a dynasty by trying to hang on long enough to hand over his job to his son.   Most unfortunately, he either cannot see or cannot address appropriately the terrible flaws of a close associate--a long-time friend whose crimes include an apparent predilection towards sexual abuse of minors--and the flaws of that close associate are central in causing the great man to fall.

As the news and commentary of the last several days have pounded in to us, this is the story of Joe Paterno, the head coach of the football team at Pennsylvania State University for 45 years until last week.   It is also the story of Ted Stevens, Alaska's U.S. Senator from 1968 until his departure following his defeat at the polls in 2008.   

There is more to say later about the similarities--and the obvious differences--between "JoePa" and "Uncle Ted."   The columnist Scott Ostler has already passed on a reader's quotation of F. Scott Fitzgerald:   "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Will Wonders Never Cease Department: Vic Kohring Has Sued Bill Allen for Defamation and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress


Amanda Coyne of Alaska Dispatch reports that ex-State Rep. Vic Kohring (R.-Wasilla) has sued Bill Allen.   Filed last June, the suit reportedly includes claims of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and damage to reputation.   According to the report, Kohring alleges that Allen's testimony against the former legislator caused him to lose his family and left him "seen as a corrupt politician."

The problems with Kohring's position in this lawsuit include (a) the FBI tapes and (b) Kohring's plea of guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Attorney General Says that Internal Department of Justice Report on Prosecutorial Failures in Ted Stevens Case Will Be Finished Soon and Could Be Released


To flesh out the comments of Attorney General Eric Holder to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today, he said that the Department of Justice's internal ethics unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility, has "just about finalized" a "multi- hundred page report" on the Ted Stevens case, which Holder arranged to have dismissed in 2009 in the wake of revelations of botched discovery.   Asked if the Justice Department would share the report with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder said that decision "is up to the people at OPR."  

Traffic Cop in the Winter Sunshine: Two Links for You


I am on deadline, so all I will do today is point to two other articles:

1.   U.S. Senators grilled Attorney General Eric Holder today on possible criminal or professional sanctions for the team of prosecutors who handled the case against former U.S. Ted Stevens.   You can read an account from Politico here

2.  If you haven't seen Jack Abramoff's "60 Minutes" interview from Sunday night, here is a summary from the Washington Post and a link to the program.      

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It Takes One to Tell Us How to Clean It Up: Convicted Briber Jack Abramoff Gives Tips for Fighting Public Corruption


Fresh from more than three and a half years in prison for crimes including bribery and fraud, former Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is pushing a new book that offers suggestions on how to clean up the system.

The Internet is alive with the proposals of the man in the black hat, who says that he held sway over 100 Members of Congress:

1.  Shut down campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists

2.  End campaign contributions from recipients from federal funds

3.  Slam shut the revolving door by prohibiting anyone who has ever been a Member of Congress or a member of the Congressional staff from ever working for "any company, organization, or association which lobbies the federal government"--Abramoff says the ban on working must include what is called "consulting," and he announces that the best route to influence was to promise high-paying jobs to the high-ranking staff members of Members of Congress

4.  Institute term limits for Members of Congress that would limit Senators to 12 years in office and Representatives to six years in office

5.  Ban Members of Congress from proposing, promoting, or perhaps even voting on projects that bring federal money to their districts or states

6.  Have state legislatures--not voters--elect U.S. Senators 

One commentator points out that Abramoff's reform agenda might be partly motivated by an implicit suggestion that the problem is a whole worm-ridden system, not just the famously rotten apple that he is.   There are obviously a lot of arguments for and against each of these proposals, but Abramoff's publicity blitz for his book--including an appearance on the TV program "60 Minutes" this Sunday--insures that they will get some attention.     

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tapping into the Vein of Alaskans' Conflicted Views of "POLAR PEN": "Alaska Edition" Version


A wrap-up of the re-sentencings of former Alaska legislators Pete Kott and Vic Kohring contains one of the purest distillations of the ambivalent feelings on the Last Frontier about the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption.   In kicking off the discussion last Friday on the public radio and TV program "Alaska Edition," Eric Adams of Alaska Dispatch noted that many Alaskans saw the federal government exposing a "deeply corrupted legislature" as well as leaving its own competence "in tatters" through the revelation of prosecutorial misconduct.  

Veteran Anchorage journalist Paul Jenkins, editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet, had a different take.   Jenkins--who once worked for ex-VECO CEO and confessed briber Bill Allen--said "There was no justice."   Jenkins downplayed the severity of the public corruption uncovered and emphasized the prosecutorial misconduct.    Jenkins also lamented that a result of the probe was the defeat of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.   

"We lost the most powerful Senator in the country.  He was worth $5 billion a year to this state," Jenkins said.   "Plus he was 'Uncle Ted.'    If you needed something badly enough, 'Uncle Ted' would get it for you.   We lost him because of this."  

Jenkins said that he thought that "Alaskans are generally sick of it" and "fed up" with the federal investigation and prosecutions.        

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Traffic Cop Awaiting Snow, Plus Some Criticism


If you haven't read the wrap-ups in the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Dispatch of the federal probe into Alaska public corruption pegged to last Friday's re-sentencings, you should.   

More speculative is the piece in the Alaska Dispatch partly  carved out of the new book on the scandals by the website's Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger.   My own view is that the article overplays the role of the "POLAR PEN" investigation in the political rise of Sarah Palin and goes too far in suggesting that the corruption investigation killed off the prospects for a natural gas pipeline across Alaska, but your mileage may vary.   

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Two Editorials on Kott and Kohring's Guilty Pleas


While I continue to sharpen my thinking on POLAR PEN's significance, here are two editorial reactions to the guilty pleas and re-sentencings last Friday that marked the official end of the federal probe into Alaska public corruption.   The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner is relieved that former legislators Pete Kott and Vic Kohring had gained enough good judgment to throw in the towel and end their cases without more trials, while the Anchorage Daily News regrets that the discovery failures of federal prosecutors led to those two ex-lawmakers getting off too easily.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Los Angeles Times Has Two Good "POLAR PEN" Stories


Kim Murphy has two nice pieces today in the Los Angeles Times on the federal probe into Alaska public corruption.    One sketches the overall story of "POLAR PEN" with a focus on the prosecutorial mistakes and/or misconduct that blunted the investigation's impact.   Murphy quotes an unnamed attorney talking about the delays in wrapping up the seemingly unending probes of the probers:   "Are they waiting for another prosecutor to commit suicide?"

The other story by Murphy looks at the case of Bruce Weyhrauch, a former Alaska legislator who spent almost five years charged with multiple felonies in the corruption probe.   The article has Weyhrauch's lawyer Doug Pope digging through the statute books to find the obscure misdemeanor that his client ultimately pleaded guilty to at the end of the case.   Weyhrauch is also writing a book entitled "It Could Happen to You."

You should read each of these, and maybe we will get more from Murphy on these topics.

Here's the Article from KTVA/Channel 11 Complete with Video


The link I put in for the interview I did on the meaning of "POLAR PEN" apparently broke down overnight, so here is the link to the article with the bonus of actually having the video.

Thanks to Steve Aufrecht for pointing out the broken link to me.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Still Working on What It Means, But Here's a Taste of What I Said on TV


I'm still working on my post on what "POLAR PEN" means, but here's a link to Bill McAllister's story that includes some material from his interview of me on this subject for Channel 11/KTVA.    (Note this is an article, as the actual video does not appear to be posted on the KTVA website.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pete Kott and Vic Kohring Trade Away Their Citizenship Rights to Guarantee They Won't Return to Prison While Karen Loeffler Declares a Victorious End to "POLAR PEN"


On a chilly October morning, two men who had admittedly  sold their public offices for cash traded away their rights as citizens to buy a guarantee that they would not return to prison.

The guilty pleas of Pete Kott and Vic Kohring triggered a muted victory dance by the people who had pursued them. U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler proclaimed at a post-sentencing press conference that the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption had been a "huge thing" and was now over.

In back-to-back hearings, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline accepted the plea agreements the two former Alaska lawmakers made with prosecutors.   Kott pleaded to bribery, and Kohring pleaded to conspiracy to commit bribery.   The bribery occurred in connection with the efforts of VECO CEO Bill Allen and VECO VP Rick Smith in 2006 to get the Alaska Legislature to set tax rates on oil production at levels desired by major oil producers, who were big customers of that Alaska-based multinational oil-services company.

The Apologetic Former Drunk and the Surprisingly Quiet Lightweight

These two defendants were each elected seven times and had tenures as legislators from Southcentral Alaska districts that almost completely overlapped, and both engaged in public corruption.    But their different postures in court reflected their different stations in life.   

Former Speaker of the Alaska House Kott went first, just as he rose far higher than his fellow Republican Kohring had in the legislature.   Kott apologized for his deeds and comments, at least those shown on the "Animal House"-style FBI surveillance videos taken in a VECO-rented hotel suite that were shown at his trial in 2007.   That trial produced convictions overturned on grounds of prosecutorial failures discovered in the meltdown of the Ted Stevens prosecution.    

"In my heart, I thought that my actions in the Legislature were for the best interests of the State of Alaska," Kott told the court.   "I understand that my actions and words off the floor of the Legislature were perhaps wrong."

Judge Beistline agreed with the "wrong" part, telling Kott that the former Air Force officer had "demonstrated a significant character flaw."   After 14 years in the legislature, the judge said, Kott seemed to become tired and in need of financial help, so "you sold your soul."

Kott got the sentence he bargained for:   no additional time in prison beyond what he has already served on convictions that were overturned, three additional years of supervised release, a $10,000 fine--and no re-trial with the associated cost, hassle, and risk of going back behind bars.   

Kohring's sentencing had a different feel presaged by him shaking my hand as he walked into the courtroom and thanking me for being "supportive" on this blog.   His comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife this morning.  I told her that while Kott's lawyer could say in his sentencing memorandum that Kott recognizes that he had an alcohol problem but no longer suffers from it, it was unlikely that Kohring's attorney would say that his client recognized that he had formerly been delusional.

But I was wrong.   In a sentencing memorandum whose contents were only disclosed after the proceeding, Kohring's lawyer said that his client had acknowledged to the federal government before his 2007 trial that Bill Allen had given him $1,000 in cash at a restaurant during the 2006 session.   Kohring had previously maintained that he believed that the cash "was intended as a gift."  

In the sentencing memorandum submitted this week, Kohring's new lawyer said that "What is different now is that Mr. Kohring has reflected on his actions and Bill Allen's motivations when this money was provided, and now acknowledges that receiving $1,000 came with expectations from Bill Allen that he would get something in return from Vic Kohring."

In another unusual move, Kohring's lawyer contended that his client's cluelessness justified a less severe sentence than other public corruption defendants received.  Michael Filipovic, Kohring's Seattle-based public defender, said that the tall man sporting long locks was "not a person who had much persuasive ability with others in the House" and "not the person who could move other people's opinions."   In a reversal from what politicians' campaign brochures usually boast, Kohring's lawyer argued that it was his client's own low "horsepower" with his legislative colleagues that meant that he was less dangerous than other office-holding defendants.   

The final surreal moment at Kohring's sentencing came when he got his chance to speak directly to the court.   His lawyer told his client in one of the loudest stage whispers ever that he had the right to say nothing, and--to the surprise of many in the courtroom--Kohring took that advice.

So there Kohring sat.   In addition to the "shame, embarrassment and public ridicule" that other defendants in the "POLAR PEN" probe have suffered, Kohring has particularly bad personal problems.    He has poor health that leads him to take medication to fight both pain and anxiety, and he is broke with only a lot of debts and only limited part-time work.   Kohring lives with his elderly parents in their mobile home in Wasilla, and serves as their primary caregiver.   

Perhaps relieved that Kohring did not try to orally reclaim the innocence that his signed plea agreement had given away, Judge Beistline gave Kohring a break.   Kohring got the time served he had bargained for, and--in an area in which the parties had not negotiated a specific agreement--the judge only imposed 18 additional months of supervised release.    There is no fine for Kohring, and no curfew like Kott got for the first year of his supervised release.      

Judge Beistline seemed to lecture Kohring less, and he reserved much of his remarks in both cases for denunciations of two men who were not in the courtroom.   The judge called Allen and Smith "two real disreputable characters" whose behavior in handing out baseball caps advertised their moral flaws.   (Testimony at Kott's trial showed that his girlfriend had made up caps that read "CBC"--for "Corrupt Bastards Club"--that Smith had flung around a bar.)    The judge called Allen and Smith "rich, greedy, amoral" (although Smith would surely disagree about the term "rich" being applied to him as well as the multimillionaire Allen).

The corruption scandals uncovered in the "POLAR PEN" probe were a "truly dark moment in the state's history," the judge said.   Echoing President Gerald Ford's comment when he pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, Judge Beistline told Kott that he was accepting the plea agreement because "I recognize the need to put this long state nightmare to an end."

This Thing's Over and It Gave Us Better Government

That was a common theme from the prosecution and the judge throughout the day:   The federal investigation had improved Alaska government, and it was finished.  

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis said during the Kohring sentencing that he was proud to live in a state and a country where public corruption was not tolerated, and he stated that "Juneau is not the same place it was five years ago." 

What had happened to Kohring and Kott would "send shudders to anybody thinking about crossing the line," the judge told Kohring.   

"The message has been sent," U.S. Attorney Loeffler said at the post-hearings press conference.    "We're in a different era, I hope."   

Loeffler worked hard in front of the reporters to embrace the positive while tap dancing away from the negative.   Pointing to the 10 people convicted of crimes--including six people who had been sitting lawmakers, representing 10 percent of the legislature--the chief federal prosecutor in Alaska said that the record showed that "We're not a Third World country."   She said that the investigations and prosecution had produced a state legislature that was "more honest and open."

Although Loeffler left open the possibility that some other unit of the Department of Justice would do something else, she announced that the job was over for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Alaska.   "We're done."  

Loeffler repeatedly refused to answer questions about some less attractive aspects of the federal probe into Alaska public corruption.   She made it clear that the decisions about Ben Stevens--including the one not to prosecute him--were not made by her office, but by other elements within the Department of Justice.    Any federal charges of Bill Allen for alleged sexual abuse of minors would come from the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, not her office.   All questions about investigations of prosecutors and investigators who formerly handled "POLAR PEN" cases had to be directed to people in Washington, D.C., where those investigations were being run.  

Loeffler and the chief FBI agent in Anchorage, Mary Rook, did confirm the locations of some personnel who formerly worked on those cases.    The former lead FBI agent on POLAR PEN, Mary Beth Kepner, attended Kott's sentencing and still works in the Anchorage FBI office.    Chad Joy, who formerly served as co-lead agent and became a whistle-blower with grievances particularly aimed at Kepner, is no longer with the FBI.   Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Bottini still works in the Anchorage office, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Goeke works for the Department of Justice outside of Alaska.

(This blog post was improved by sitting next to Mark Regan during some of the proceedings.    The precise wording of the quotation from Pete Kott comes from the report of Kim Murphy in the Los Angeles Times.)

Tomorrow:   What Did "POLAR PEN" Mean?

Television Announcement


While I am working away on my typically oversized post about today's sentencings and the "We're done" press conference from the U.S. Attorney, you can watch me on TV tonight on Channel 11, KTVA in Anchorage, as Bill McAllister interviews me about the significance of today's events and the entire federal investigation into Alaska public corruption.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lawyer for Lead Ted Stevens Trial Prosecutor Brenda Morris Announces that Justice Department Has Cleared Her, Too


A Wall Street Journal blog has reported that the lawyer for Brenda Morris, lead prosecutor at the Ted Stevens trial, has announced that the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) "found absolutely no misconduct" by his client.    OPR is the internal ethics watchdog for the Justice Department, and it conducted a probe of prosecutors involved with the trial after the case fell apart in early 2009 following jury verdicts of guilty against the long-time U.S. Senator.  

Vic Kohring and Pete Kott Admit Numerous Specific Criminal Acts in Return for No More Time in Prison


Former State Representatives Vic Kohring (R.-Wasilla) and Pete Kott (R.-Eagle River) admitted to various specific acts constituting crimes of corruption in their plea agreements that prevent them from being sent back to prison when they are re-sentenced Friday.

Kohring admitted taking $1,000 from VECO CEO Bill Allen at a restaurant in February of 2006.   "I took this money intending to be rewarded and knowing and understanding why Bill Allen was giving it to me," reads the plea agreement signed by Kohring personally.   "By accepting this money with that knowledge and intent, I knowingly became a part of the conspiracy to bribe elected officials."  

Kohring also admits what has been shown on tape about his famous meeting in the Baranof Hotel's Suite 604 on March 30, 2006, which is that he solicited Allen for help with the lawmaker's $17,000 credit card debt and then took cash from the oil-services tycoon.

For his part, Kott personally signed a plea agreement stating that he "corruptly solicited and agreed to accept over $7,900 in monetary payments and a promise of future employment from Bill Allen, Rick Smith and VECO Corporation."   Specifically, Kott admits that he accepted $7,993 on a false flooring invoice; solicited the promise of a future job from Bill Allen; received the benefit of a poll paid by VECO worth $2,700; and took $1,000 in cash from Allen.

As predicted here, the deals explicitly provide for no more prison time for either defendant.   Kott's deal is for three more years of supervised release and a $10,000 fine, while Kohring gets a term of supervision to be set by the judge and no fine (due to his poverty).

As Anchorage lawyer Mark Regan has suggested, the plea agreements leave the potentially tough sentencing remarks from U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline as about the only source of fireworks at the proceedings Friday morning.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lurching Toward the Wrap-Up: Vic Kohring Cops a Plea, Edward Sullivan Gets Restored, and William Welch and Brenda Morris Fight Contempt Finding

Providence, R.I.--

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.]

Monday, October 17, 2011

Vic Kohring Will Also Drop His Not Guilty Plea and Avoid Trial

Warwick, R.I.--

Former State Representative Vic Kohring's lawyer has filed a notice of intent to change his plea on the charge against him entitled "conspiracy to commit extortion and attempted extortion under color of official right and bribery."   The change in plea to this felony charge is explicitly pursuant to a plea agreement with the prosecution.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

An Apology and A Question

Warwick, R.I.--

Let's start with an apology to the Justice Department.  I predicted last April 3 on this blog that the government would dismiss the cases against ex-State Reps. Vic Kohring (R.-Wasilla) and Pete Kott (R.-Eagle River).   Although I also predicted in a column for the Alaska Bar Rag published last June that the Justice Department would not re-try the former lawmakers--leaving open the possibility that the cases would be resolved with plea agreements--that April 3 prediction on the blog is obviously wrong as to Kott, who last week announced that he would drop his not guilty plea to a bribery charge.

And now let's have a poll.  

How do you think the Vic Kohring case will be resolved?

Dismissal ___

Agreement resulting in a plea of guilty to a misdemeanor ___ 

Agreement resulting in a plea of guilty to a felony producing  no additional prison time ___

Agreement resulting in a plea of guilty to a felony producing additional prison time ___

Trial ___

Get your votes in before 5 p.m. Alaska time Monday, October 17, 2011 (that would be tomorrow as I write this).    I will write my own analysis after that.    Here's a preview:  

(1)  The outcome in which Vic Kohring pleads guilty to a felony producing additional prison time seems by far the least likely.

(2) Vic Kohring's unusual--some would say "delusional"--view of the world might make it more difficult for his attorneys to talk him into a resolution that they believe to good for their client.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Notes on Improving Our Criminal Justice System

Providence, R.I.--

On the theory that people read this blog because they are interested in some combination of public affairs, Alaska matters, and what I have to say, here are my notes for a speech I gave last week to the Anchorage chapter of NALS, "the association for legal professionals."

Alternatives to Incarceration:

The Need for “Smart Justice”

Cliff Groh

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.

The percentage of Alaska’s population in custody has more than tripled in the past three decades.

If Alaska’s total population had increased in the last 30 years at the same rate as its population in custody has gone up, today there would be as many people in this state as there are in Houston, Texas.

The United States imprisons people at a rate six times higher than that of Canada.   

One in 31 adults in the U.S. is either behind bars or on supervised release.

“Either we are the most evil people on earth or we doing something very wrong.” – U.S. Senator Jim Webb

If our criminal justice system worked right, we could cut imprisonment AND cut crime.

Let’s talk about:

            --Why our system grew so overburdened and turned bad

            --The ways in which our system is too costly and ineffective

            --How our system could be better

Growth in prison populations reflects several factors:   taking some crimes more seriously, growing severity of sentences generally, increase in imprisonment of drug offenders, use of prisons as holding facilities for the mentally ill, and substantial disparities in ethnic composition of the inmates.

Putting people behind bars is expensive.   The growing costs of paying for incarceration around the country is now crowding out or will soon crowd out spending for other public programs, particularly education.

It costs$49,800.60 to keep someone in prison for a year in Alaska vs. $52,652 to put an undergraduate student at Harvard for a year of tuition, room, and board.

The criminal justice system is too often ineffective.

More than 90 percent of all people in prison are eventually released, and more than one-half of the people released from prison are back behind bars in three years.

We could reduce imprisonment AND reduce crime by relying on “Smart Justice” moves.

One expert—UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman—estimates that we could simultaneously cut incarceration in half AND cut crime in half in 10 years if we moved to a system of “smart justice.” 

A system that moved away from the current random severity towards swifter and more certain punishment would work better and be cheaper.  

Don’t be hard or soft—be smart. 

Swift and certain equals smart.

Smart justice uses insights from parenting and psychological research and technological progress.

Enforce probation and parole conditions faster and more predictably.   

--The HOPE program in Hawaii shows the way.    Sending felony probationers who failed or missed drug tests immediately to prison for 48-hour stays cut their arrest rate for new crimes by two-thirds.
--Even Texas is expanding drug treatment and other programs in lieu of building more prisons.

Give most people in the system shorter stays in less pleasant and safer custodial situations.

Use electronic monitoring as much as possible.  It costs $136.44 per day to keep someone in prison in Alaska vs. $21.25per day for electronic monitoring.

Put people in prison mostly because you’re afraid of them, not because you’re mad at them.   Candidates for long sentences are:

--The truly dangerous.

--Repetitive rule-breakers in new system (like somebody who cuts off his ankle bracelet).

--A few to make unusual examples of.

Hire more police officers and probation and parole officers as opposed to more prison guards.