Cowdery gets 6 months home confinement

FINED: Former senator is also fined $25,000.

March 10, 2009 

Former state Sen. John Cowdery was ordered on Tuesday to serve six months in home confinement and fined $25,000 for conspiring to bribe another senator into supporting the oil industry position on petroleum production taxes in 2006.

"Certainly the people have the right to expect that public officials will be honest and be aboveboard in their conduct," U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline scolded Cowdery during the 22-minute sentencing hearing. "There should be an obligation to expect integrity -- that word, integrity -- in all our public officials."

Federal prosecutors Edward Sullivan and Jim Goeke joined with defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald in urging home confinement instead of prison for Cowdery, 79, who attended the session in a wheelchair and has difficulty rising to his feet. Fitzgerald said Cowdery's wife, Juanita, 85, is also in poor health and only Cowdery can drive the couple's Cadillac to the doctor.

In delivering the sentence, Beistline said Cowdery could leave home for medical visits or to attend church, as long as he clears each trip in advance with the probation office.

"If you try to mess around with them, the consequences will be dire for you," he said. One result could be prison, the judge said.

Probation will extend for three years, Beistline said, but the judge expressed doubt that Cowdery will see it expire.

"Mr. Cowdery, it will be a miracle if you survive the period of probation," Beistline said, basing his opinion on Cowdery's confidential pre-sentence report.

Cowdery pleaded guilty in December to conspiring with Bill Allen, chief executive of the oil-field services company Veco Corp., to bribe Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, with up to $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Olson, who was making a bid for lieutenant governor, never got the money and wasn't charged.

At the time, the Legislature was debating an oil-tax bill. Allen was looking for votes for a version of the bill supported by the oil industry and Cowdery, chairman of the Rules Committee, was helping.

Cowdery wasn't just an ordinary politician, Sullivan told the judge. "The defendant was a very important legislator at the time of the offense," he said, and was an "integral part" of the effort to bribe Olson.

As Rules chairman, it was Cowdery's job to count votes and twist arms before a measure came to the floor. Several legislators wrote the judge that Cowdery was effective in administering his duties.

In return for Cowdery's guilty plea, the government dropped a second count of bribery.

Fitzgerald suggested that Cowdery's home confinement be six months and his fine about $7,500. Sullivan, from the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, asked for a year and a $25,000 fine.

In splitting the difference, Beistline said Cowdery's health was reason enough for the shorter confinement. But the larger fine, higher than sentencing guidelines would suggest, carried a message of punishment and deterrence, he said.

Citing the corrupting force of Allen, Beistline said, "Everyone was tainted to some extent by their interactions with him." Then, looking down toward the defense table, he added, "Mr. Cowdery, you knew what was going on, and you played along."

The judge told Cowdery he couldn't possess any weapons during the probationary period, but waived the usual requirement that he undergo regular tests for illegal drug use.

Cowdery offered no apologies for his behavior and none were offered on his behalf by Fitzgerald. Asked by the judge if he wanted to say anything, Cowdery responded, "My attorney more or less said everything."

Given a second chance by Beistline, Cowdery replied nearly the same way. "My attorney covered everything I was going to cover," he said.

But someone else in the crowded courtroom wanted to address the judge. Goeke, an assistant U.S. attorney, said former legislator Ray Metcalfe, an activist on corruption issues, had asked for the right to represent victims. Goeke said the request was extraordinary and not provided for in law, and Beistline ruled it out of order.

Afterward, Metcalfe said he got the idea to address the court after watching the earlier sentencing of a legislator on corruption charges by another federal judge who asserted there were no specific victims.

"I believe there were nearly 700,000 victims," Metcalfe said, referring to the population of Alaska. By using his wallet to support legislators favoring low taxes on the oil industry, Metcalfe said, Allen for decades cheated the state treasury and Permanent Fund out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Metcalfe said he was satisfied with Beistline's admonitions and his characterization of Cowdery as "publicly disgraced."

Cowdery didn't speak to reporters as his grandson wheeled him out of the courtroom. His daughter, Pamela, said, "I'm just glad it's over."

Cowdery is the 10th person convicted in the wide-ranging FBI corruption investigation in Alaska, begun in secret in 2004. Five of the convicted are lawmakers, including former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. One more is awaiting trial.

A Republican who spent most of his working life as a contractor, Cowdery represented parts of the Anchorage Hillside and the Lake Otis Parkway area for 14 years in the Alaska House and Senate. He didn't seek re-election in November.

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

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