A federal judge Wednesday ordered separate trials for two former Republican legislators to allow jury selection for one to move forward while the government appeals an earlier ruling favoring the other.
The decision on the one-time co-defendants means the bribery, extortion, fraud and conspiracy case against Pete Kott, the former House speaker, will go ahead with opening arguments scheduled for Monday. Jury selection started at midmorning Wednesday and will continue today.
But the trial of Bruce Weyhrauch, a former representative from Juneau, will await the outcome of the government's bid to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and perhaps longer. Weyhrauch's attorney, Doug Pope, said he'd try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if the 9th Circuit reverses the decision in Anchorage.
U.S. District Judge John Sedwick made his ruling on separating the trials in a hastily called hearing that began at 8 a.m. Wednesday, just before jury selection was to begin. With more than 80 potential jurors from around Southcentral Alaska cloistered in a meeting room across the lobby and down a hall, Nicholas Marsh, a trial attorney from the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, told Sedwick that his superiors in Washington agreed that an appeal of an earlier ruling was justified.
They are challenging a ruling by Sedwick on Tuesday that said the government couldn't present evidence that Weyhrauch and Kott were duty-bound to report they were seeking employment with Veco, the politically active oil-field service company, in 2006, when they were voting on oil-tax legislation heavily lobbied by Veco's chair, Bill Allen. Sedwick held that state law had no such requirement.
In the Wednesday morning hearing, Marsh told Sedwick the government still had ample evidence against Kott and was prepared to go to trial. But for Weyhrauch, a lawyer who never landed the Veco job, the evidence is crucial, Marsh said.
At issue is whether Weyhrauch used mail fraud to cheat Alaskans of honest services as a state legislator. Pope said Weyhrauch did nothing wrong in sending a personal advertisement for legal services to Veco.
With the trial set to begin, expenses for lawyers and the court adding up, and potential jurors cooling their heels, Marsh proposed that Sedwick revisit a request made in August by Weyhrauch's attorneys to split the trial. At the time, Pope argued that the stronger evidence against Kott could prejudice the jury against his client. The government opposed the motion then, and the judge kept the defendants together.
But now, Pope told Sedwick, the situation has changed. He was fully prepared to go to trial. It would be an undue financial and emotional burden on Weyhrauch and his family to delay any longer. He argued the government's points of appeal were thin and unlikely to succeed.
But Sedwick said federal appeals courts around the country were split on the disclosure issue, while the all-important 9th Circuit, governing courts in Alaska, "hasn't spoken." Sedwick said he followed a line of reasoning adopted by the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.
Jim Wendt, Kott's attorney, opposed the split, mainly because he had prepared a case theory and line of questioning for witnesses based on having a co-defendant. The government agreed to delay opening arguments until Monday, and promised to tell him by Friday whether Allen and former Veco vice president Rick Smith would be called to testify and to reveal the approximate place in the trial they would take the stand.
Following a 90-minute recess to review the law and rulings in related cases, Sedwick called the parties back to his courtroom and announced he would split up the co-defendants so the government could pursue the appeal. He said the government clearly had that right.
After packing up boxes of documents on a cart and clearing the courthouse, Pope stopped to talk with reporters and expressed outrage at the government. He said prosecutors realized late in the pretrial phase that their case was weak and responded by inventing a new case theory that relied on an improper application of federal law.
He said Weyhrauch's day in court may be delayed for more than a year by the appeal.
Marsh said it would be inappropriate to comment on Pope's out-of-court criticism.
Back in the courtroom, potential jurors began filing in to be questioned about their knowledge of the now-smaller case. The lawyers on both sides introduced themselves, and so did Kott, who represented Eagle River in the House.
"I'm Pete Kott, and I'm the defendant in the case," he said, smiling at the packed room of jurors.
Most of those with strong opinions already had been weeded out through written questionnaires.
Sedwick, and sometimes the lawyers, asked detailed questions of about half those remaining on Wednesday to determine whether any were too biased to be fair jurors or had other reasons not to serve.
One had just landed her first full-time job in a year, so she was allowed to go home. A couple of people had medical issues. One is leaving Alaska this month. Another is married to a former contract manager at BP and socialized with Allen. All left the courtroom.
Some were close calls. One man told the judge he thought he could be fair "for the most part." When Sedwick pressed him, he said part of him struggled with the politics of oil in Alaska. The judge sent him home.
While a number of the prospective jurors had a general idea that the matter before them was a bribery case, some said they didn't pay attention to politics. Others followed the political corruption cases closely. Some told the judge they were most interested in trouble faced by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and his son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens. Neither has been charged with a crime, but Ben Stevens is accused of being part of a conspiracy that included Kott, Weyhrauch, Allen and Smith.
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.