Clark's nickname: 'Governor'

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

State legislators called him "Governor Clark" during the four years he molded Alaska government as the enormously influential chief of staff and close confidante of Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Clark was the most powerful unelected figure in state government during the Murkowski term from 2002 to 2006. Juneau insiders at the time described him as having more authority than any chief of staff in recent memory.

"I think he was a true soldier, and if the governor wanted it done he would try to figure out a way to do it," Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton said Monday night.

Clark, born in New York City, came to Juneau in 1973 for a job with the law and lobbying firm Robertson, Monagle and Eastaugh. He represented the timber industry and met Murkowski during the wilderness fight in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Murkowski, at the time a Fairbanks banker, was trying to get himself elected to the U.S. Senate. Clark pitched in to help and Murkowski won.

The friendship grew.

In 1985, Murkowski appointed Clark to manage a blind trust holding more than $250,000 of Murkowski's personal wealth. Clark had become the Alaska timber industry's leading Washington, D.C., lobbyist by that point, and Murkowski dissolved the trust after campaign watchdog groups complained the relationship was too cozy.

Clark kept battling for the timber industry in Juneau and Washington, spending three decades in a mostly losing fight on the environmental battlefield. His clients credited him with good work against the odds.

No one was surprised when Murkowski named Clark his chief of staff after leaving the Senate and being elected governor in 2002. Clark immediately set forth to reshape state government. He had a wary, top-down style and scrutinized even the smallest details of state agencies.

"He was very hands-on; he had a finger in everything," said Juneau economist Gregg Erickson, who was editor of a well-regarded newsletter on Alaska government.

Clark answered to no one but Murkowski. He was the man to see for state legislators who wanted anything from the administration. Clark would show up in committee hearings and in the gallery for floor votes, his presence a powerful signal of what Murkowski wanted.

Clark at times negotiated on Murkowski's behalf during the closed-door talks with the oil industry over oil taxes and terms for a natural gas pipeline.

Two state legislators have been convicted of taking bribes from the now defunct oil field services company Veco over that oil tax. Veco pushed -- and in some cases, bribed -- lawmakers to pass the tax rate Murkowski and the industry wanted.

Veco was at the center of Clark's guilty plea. He admitted to illegally using Veco to pay for campaign work on Murkowski's re-election effort.

Clark was mentioned in FBI recordings of conversations involving Veco executives and the bribed legislators. It was clear that he was the man in the administration that Veco spoke to and hoped to influence. But there has not been evidence presented in court so far implicating Clark in the scheme to bribe lawmakers.

Clark's role was ambiguous in one FBI recorded conversation between convicted Veco chief Bill Allen and Conoco Phillips Alaska president Jim Bowles. The Legislature was talking about raising the oil tax rate higher than the 20 percent Allen and Bowles wanted. The two men were discussing how it would be better for them to get the Legislature to adjourn than go with the higher petroleum production tax, known in Juneau as PPT for short.

"You can bet that Jim Clark and them are gonna try to get a PPT somehow," Allen said as the FBI listened.

Bowles replied, "Well, you know we've talked with Clark, we've talked with him several times about don't push through 22½ (percent). That's not what we want to see as an outcome. So if he's doing that, he's doing it against conversations we've had."

Allen and Clark did appear to cooperate at least once on legislative strategy, according to court testimony.

Allen testified in the corruption trial of former state Rep. Vic Kohring that Clark at one point "asked me if I'd come down and talk to Vic."

There was a tax bill affecting Cook Inlet oil producers stalled in Kohring's committee, and Clark wanted Allen's help in getting Kohring to release it, Allen testified. "I asked Vic if he would do that, he said, yeah, he would, he'd help me," Allen said from the witness stand.

But the majority of the Legislature didn't like the North Slope gas pipeline and tax deal Murkowski and Clark negotiated with the companies. Sarah Palin then soundly defeated Murkowski in the Republican primary when he sought re-election.

Murkowki, in his final hours in office, tried to ensure his old friend Clark would remain influential in the natural gas pipeline talks. He appointed Clark to the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority board.

But Palin removed Clark from the board in her first week in office. Clark has been fairly quiet since, practicing law in Juneau.

Juneau Sen. Elton, who has known Clark for decades, said he hopes this dark period in Alaska's political history is soon over.

"I've watched his kids grow up. I've known his wife for a long period of time. I've known him for a long time," Elton said. "Am I surprised that he pleaded guilty to stepping over the line? Yes."

Daily News reporter Richard Mauer contributed to this story.