Conviction snagged on one point

KOHRING: The jury found him guilty of all but a single charge.

November 3, 2007 

The reason jurors found former state Rep. Vic Kohring not guilty on one of the four corruption charges against him boils down to a technical requirement of a federal law that dates back more than 60 years.

On Thursday, a jury convicted the Wasilla Republican of three felonies -- bribery, conspiracy and attempted extortion -- but acquitted him of extortion. Afterwards, several jurors explained.

Kohring was a sympathetic figure, even a tragic figure, but it was clear prosecutors had enough evidence, except on one detail, said jurors including the foreman, Rocky Capozzi.

The official charge is a legalistic mouthful: Interference with commerce by extortion under color of official right.

It's commonly called the Hobbs Act, enacted in 1946 to fight violence and racketeering in labor unions and disputes with management. According to the U.S. Justice Department, it's now commonly used to go after public officials in corruption cases, including in Alaska.

In Kohring's case, jurors were instructed that prosecutors had to prove four facts for the Wasilla Republican to be convicted of extortion.

What stopped them was element four, that interstate commerce was affected in some way, Capozzi said.

"Well, not that we could tell," he said.

That requirement is what gives the feds jurisdiction over extortion involving state officials. But prosecutors say it only has to be a minimal effect.

According to testimony and surveillance recordings from the trial, Kohring conspired with executives with the former Veco Corp. -- which had operations in several states and countries before its sale in September-- to push through a new oil tax favored by North Slope oil producers.

The tax, and a natural gas pipeline that could follow, would have enormous impact on Veco and the oil companies, all international, prosecutor Edward Sullivan told jurors in his closing argument on Wednesday.

But the 20 percent tax rate agreed to by the major oil producers and pushed by Veco ultimately didn't pass, so jurors said they didn't see that there was an effect.

Jurors did convict Kohring of attempted extortion. He tried to get Veco executives to help him with a $17,000 credit card debt from a surgery. He never got that money, either in a loan or otherwise, which is why prosecutors considered it attempted extortion.

But other elements of that charge were different too. Jurors had only to find that interstate commerce "would have been affected" in some way, not that it was, according to the written instructions given to them by U.S. District Judge John Sedwick.

When jurors began deliberating around noon on Wednesday, they didn't take an early vote to see how folks were leaning, said Capozzi, who was back at work Friday in his job as director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Aviation Technology division.

Instead, he said, "the very first thing we did was let everybody say everything you think and feel about this. Just vent. That was the starting point."

Another juror, Alan Rowe, a courier for Cal Worthington Ford, said some people hoped at the start that they could find Kohring not guilty on all counts. But as Capozzi helped them consider the various elements of each charge during nine hours of deliberations, they all realized that wouldn't be the right thing, Rowe said.

Hint to the lawyers and judge for the next trial: Jurors said they'd like the use of a machine to project documents onto the wall, so everyone can look at the same thing together. The jury only got one copy of the 26-page jury instructions.

"It was a very thorough and I thought extraordinarily fair process," Capozzi said. "There was a lot of emotion. There was a lot of empathy for, I thought, Victor Kohring the man, but the facts were the facts as we found them."

"Nobody was going to let their mind be decided on emotion alone."


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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