A federal judge sentenced former Wasilla state Rep. Vic Kohring to 3½ years in prison Thursday for taking bribes in a scheme to keep Alaska oil taxes down.
"Unfortunately, in the end he sold out the trust which he had worked so hard to earn," U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick said in pronouncing the sentence.
Kohring maintains he didn't break any laws and will fight through appeals.
"My conscience is clear. I did nothing criminal. I was a little naive, I will admit to that," Kohring told the judge.
Kohring's suit was rumpled, and he said he had to hitchhike into court from the Valley after his borrowed truck broke down on the highway.
An Anchorage jury convicted Kohring in November of bribery, conspiracy and attempted extortion. They concluded the Republican legislator sold himself to the oil field services company Veco and its former executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith.
Allen and Smith have pleaded guilty. The pair testified against Kohring and are cooperating with the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in Alaska politics.
Kohring won't have to report to prison until June 30, to allow him time to get surgery for his back.
"Mr. Kohring was in an automobile accident a week before trial and I was driving," Kohring's lawyer, John Henry Browne, explained to the judge. "It was the first time I was in an accident in 30 years, and it was my fault."
Kohring will be going to the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., where former Alaska state representatives Pete Kott and Tom Anderson are also serving sentences. Kohring got a lighter sentence than did Kott and Anderson, who received six and five years respectively after being convicted on corruption charges last year.
"Frankly his behavior here did not strike me as nearly as egregious as the behavior displayed in the other cases," said Judge Sedwick, who also sentenced the others.
Sedwick said Kohring, 49, did have a desire to help people; he just shouldn't have helped Veco executives corrupt state politics.
Jurors found Kohring conspired with Allen and Smith to try to keep a state petroleum tax from going any higher than what the oil companies had agreed to. The jury decided Kohring took bribes from the men and tried to get them to pay his $17,000 credit card bill. Kohring sought or received more than $24,000 in "corrupt benefits," prosecutors said.
The defense argued the money Kohring accepted was gifts from people he considered friends, not bribes. Kohring's lawyer said his client is a nice, simple guy.
"He's Andy Griffith, he really is," Browne said. "He's not angry, he's just really disappointed with what transpired here."
Federal prosecutor Joe Bottini said Kohring was manipulative and corrupt.
"I don't remember any episode of that show where Andy Griffith took cash from anybody," Bottini told the judge.
HITCHHIKED TO COURT
Browne said Kohring is destitute. Kohring's wife, who lives in Oregon, is divorcing him and he's sleeping on the couch of his parents' double-wide mobile home in Wasilla. He had been driving a borrowed 1984 Ford truck -- the door would fall off if someone touched it, according to Browne -- but it broke down on the Glenn Highway on Thursday morning as Kohring drove in for his sentencing.
Kohring said in an interview that he didn't have a cell phone and had to hitchhike into court. He said the guy who gave him a ride turned out to be a former constituent.
"He was offering his profound support and his prayers and he called his wife and said 'Put Vic on the prayer chain right now; he needs prayer,' " Kohring said.
In divorce paperwork filed in Oregon last month, Kohring wrote that he's getting food from the food bank. His wife, Tatiana Hornal, filed for divorce in March and is asking the court to make Kohring pay spousal support, provide health insurance and keep a life insurance policy with her as beneficiary.
Kohring responded he doesn't have the money and she should pay him the spousal support.
Browne complained in court Thursday that the government's star witness, former Veco chief Allen, is living a far different lifestyle as his sentencing keeps getting delayed. He said the federal government is allowing Allen's family to keep his millions from the sale of Veco.
"While my client is hitchhiking to court and sleeping on his couch, Mr. Allen is living in a very nice neighborhood, in a million-dollar house, driving around in his Lexus with $400 million in his pocket," Browne said.
Browne suggested the federal government is allowing such a life because Allen is tied to the oil industry, which the Bush administration favors.
Federal prosecutor Bottini objected to Browne's claim that Veco got a pass.
"(Allen) sold the company at a huge discount because the government would not give Veco a pass and has not given Veco a pass," he said.
'REFUSE TO COWER'
Browne said Kohring's appeal will focus on many issues, the biggest being Kohring's allegation the judge has a conflict of interest.
Kohring said the judge's wife, Deborah Sedwick, is "one of my biggest personal and political enemies." It started back in the late 1990s when she was commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development and Kohring targeted her department for cuts and downsizing.
Kohring told the judge he will forever wonder if his sentence was as a result of the battles that Kohring had with Deborah Sedwick. He said he didn't realize who the judge's wife was until she showed up for the closing arguments of his trial.
"I refuse to cower before you in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence and know I'm risking retribution by standing my ground," Kohring told the judge on Thursday.
Kohring said he sponsored legislation that eliminated Deborah Sedwick's department and her job as commissioner. But Judge Sedwick, in denying Kohring's request that he step aside, noted the legislation led to the merger of two state departments and Deborah Sedwick ended up as commissioner of a revamped and enlarged agency. Her pay went up over the years, according to state officials.
Browne, Kohring's lawyer, said federal prosecutors had offered Kohring a sentencing deal that involved cooperating in the corruption investigation and giving up his right to appeal. Browne wouldn't say whom the FBI wanted Kohring to give information on, describing the federal targets just as "little fish."
"Vic does not have any evidence on any other individuals because he's not involved in this whole big picture," Browne said.
Prosecutors wouldn't answer questions following Kohring's sentencing about the status of the broader federal investigation of Alaska politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, his former legislator son, Ben, and U.S. Rep. Don Young.
"I'm sorry, none of us can talk. We can't make any comments," said Nicholas Marsh of the U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C.
During the sentencing, prosecutors brushed off the defense attempt to portray Kohring as a nice man who deserves compassion for his financial problems.
"What you saw here was a guy who was politely corrupt," Bottini said. "That doesn't mean he's any less corrupt."
Prosecutors said Kohring played the pauper to get money from Veco, even while making nearly $100,000 in salary and per diem as a state legislator and private consultant to Anchorage developer Marc Marlow.
SLEPT ON HIS COUCH
Leah Jackson, one of the jurors who convicted Kohring, came to the court to watch his sentencing. She said in an interview afterward the jury had no idea how much prison time he was facing.
"I feel the judge's sentence was a little harsh," she said.
Kohring is a soft-spoken giant -- 6-foot-6 -- who was portrayed at trial as a mooch kissing up to Veco for money. Kohring's Mat-Su constituents elected him seven times, sending him back to Juneau by a large margin even after the FBI raided his offices in the Capitol and in Wasilla.
Kohring was seen as an odd duck by many of his colleagues in the Legislature. He slept on his office couch and called for eliminating half the state's laws and turning the governor's mansion into a museum featuring exhibits of "Alaska's socialist past."
But his strength was constituent work. Kohring was known for walking his district, getting to know people and spending long hours working on their personal issues with state government.
Kohring said he plans to run for the Legislature again after he exonerates himself.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
U.S. vs. Victor H. Kohring
Found guilty in November 2007
What was he accused of?
Being part of a conspiracy, with Veco executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith, to push passage of an industry-friendly oil profits tax in 2006. He was charged with taking between $2,100 and $2,600 in cash in 2006, asking for help paying off a $17,000 credit card debt, and seeking and receiving a Veco summer job for a nephew, which paid $3,000.