Frail Cowdery pleads not guilty on corruption charges

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

A feeble-looking Anchorage Sen. John Cowdery, pushed into court by his lawyer in a wheelchair, today pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.

U.S. marshals fingerprinted Cowdery and allowed him to go free on $5,000 bond. His trial was set for Oct. 6 before U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline.

The 78-year-old Cowdery faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted on the bribery and conspiracy charges. He's accused of scheming with Veco Corp. executives to try and buy the vote of a fellow state senator, Nome Democrat Donny Olson, in order to keep state oil taxes down.

Olson hasn't been charged and says he didn't get anything from Veco.

Cowdery said little in court Monday. Both he and his attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald of Anchorage, declined to speak to reporters.

Fitzgerald told the magistrate Cowdery continues to be employed by the state of Alaska as a legislator, giving no indication that Cowdery has any plans to resign from office.

Cowdery missed a few beats before replying when Magistrate John Roberts asked his age. Cowdery, who suffers from kidney problems, also looked over the court's list of medications he's on.

"Maybe that's all I'm taking; my wife knows more than I do," he told the magistrate.

Cowdery's wife, Juanita, observed the arraignment from the public gallery. She was expressionless, with the same bearing she had when watching Senate floor sessions as her husband's ubiquitous companion during seven years in Juneau.

Three former Alaska state legislators have already been convicted and sentenced as part of the broad FBI corruption probe into state politics. All of them pleaded not guilty and went to trial.

Federal prosecutors said they could begin turning over "voluminous" discovery materials to Cowdery's lawyer as soon as he provides them with a 750-gigabyte portable computer hard drive. Prosecutors are expected to use FBI audio and video recordings as evidence against Cowdery, just as in the previous corruption trials of state legislators.

Cowdery, a Republican who represents a stretch of South Anchorage and the Lower Hillside, is charged with conspiring in 2006 with Veco executives to give Olson $25,000 in return for his vote on the oil tax. Olson was running for lieutenant governor and looking for campaign funds.

Cowdery's lawyer, Fitzgerald, has previously said the government misinterpreted comments made by Cowdery and that the indictment "will be exposed for the mistake it is."

Cowdery until recently was one of the most powerful figures of the bipartisan state Senate majority, which made him the rules chairman, a position that gave him clout over which bills made it to the floor for a vote.

Cowdery resigned that chairmanship this spring. He then stepped down as head of the legislative council, which oversees administrative business of the Legislature, after his indictment last month.