Cowdery intends to plead guilty Friday

Deal: state senator likely to get home confinement for bribery and extortion.

December 18, 2008 

State Sen. John Cowdery, elected to six terms in the Alaska Legislature and the state's oldest active lawmaker, announced Thursday he intends to plead guilty Friday to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and extortion.

Cowdery was facing a two-count indictment and was scheduled to be tried on the federal charges in March.

Kevin Fitzgerald, Cowdery's attorney, said Thursday evening that the government would drop the second count, a bribery charge, in return for the guilty plea.

Cowdery will appear in court this morning to officially enter his change of plea.

As part of the deal, the government will recommend to U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline that Cowdery, 78, be sentenced to home confinement and not prison, Fitzgerald said. Cowdery is in poor health and appeared at a hearing earlier this week in a wheelchair.

The government will also recommend a fine in the range of $7,500 to $75,000, Fitzgerald said.

Cowdery, a Republican who has represented parts of the Anchorage Hillside and Lake Otis Parkway area, was first elected to a two-year term in the House in 1982 at a time when the Republicans were just beginning a leadership reign that continues today. He ran again in 1996 and was elected to two consecutive two-year House terms. In 2000, he won a two-year Senate seat and was re-elected in 2002 and 2004. Facing the federal investigation and then indictment in July, he chose not to seek re-election this year.

Cowdery was in his legislative office in downtown Anchorage on Aug. 31, 2006, when a squad of federal agents descended on the building. His office was one of the targets of the search warrants being executed by the agents.

Cowdery, then using a walker, met with agents in a conference room, then shuffled back to his own office surrounded by reporters. Asked by one whether he was under investigation, Cowdery replied, "I don't think so."

But Cowdery's name figured prominently in the investigation and in some of the early corruption trials involving other lawmakers. Bill Allen, the government's lead witness, has described him as a friend and a man with a similar background in the construction business.

Allen has pleaded guilty to bribing a host of legislators and is one of Cowdery's alleged coconspirators in an effort to bribe another state senator. That senator, identified in Cowdery's indictment as "State Senator A," didn't take the money -- $25,000 in illegal campaign donations -- and hasn't been charged.

Senator A has been identified in media accounts as Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, who was running for lieutenant governor in 2006. Olson told reporters he was cooperating with the federal investigation.

Like the cases against other state legislators, the charge against Cowdery involved Allen's effort to win favorable oil-tax legislation for the state's oil producers in 2006.

If Cowdery's plea proceeds as planned this morning, he will the 10th person convicted in the federal public corruption investigation with one other legislator, former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, awaiting trial. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and three legislators have been found guilty by juries, while the rest have pleaded guilty.

The government says its investigation is continuing. One other alleged member of Cowdery's conspiracy, identified in Cowdery's indictment as "State Senator B," has not been charged. His description matches that of a legislator previously identified as a subject of the federal investigation, former Sen. President Ben Stevens, Ted Stevens' son. Ben Stevens has denied wrongdoing.

When Cowdery's indictment was announced July 10, a number of officials, including Gov. Sarah Palin, asked him to resign for the good of the state. He refused and was supported in his defiance by Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and other lawmakers.

Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.

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