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Cowdery pleads guilty to Veco conspiracy

Richard Mauer
JIM LAVRAKAS / Daily News archive 2008 State Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, arrives at Federal Court in Anchorage in August, pushed by his attorney Kevin Fitzgerald.

State Sen. John Cowdery pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge Friday and was added to the growing list of public officials who have fallen in a broad corruption investigation in Alaska.

Cowdery, 78, admitted conspiring with top officials of the former oil-field services company Veco Corp. to bribe another state senator into agreeing to take Veco's position on pending oil-tax legislation in 2006. Veco and the other state senator, Donny Olson, never consummated the deal, which would have gotten Olson $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

Olson has said he cooperated with the federal investigation.

In return for Cowdery's guilty plea, made in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Friday morning, the government promised to recommend a sentence of between six and 12 months confinement served at home instead of prison.

The government will also recommend a fine of no more than $25,000, unless a presentence report determines Cowdery has unusual wealth, in which case the government recommendation could rise to $75,000.

Prosecutors agreed to drop a charge of bribery against Cowdery.

Cowdery is the 10th person to be convicted in the federal corruption investigation, with one other legislator awaiting trial. A Republican who spent most of his working life in the construction business, Cowdery has represented parts of the Anchorage Hillside and the Lake Otis Parkway area for 14 years in the Alaska House and Senate.

He has resisted calls to step down and will continue to be paid as a senator until his term expires Jan. 20.

Cowdery's plea means that two freshly convicted felons now represent Alaska constituents. The other is U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, convicted Oct. 27 of seven counts of submitting false financial disclosures that failed to mention some $250,000 in gifts he received from Veco, Allen and others.

Cowdery's plea deal doesn't require him to testify against anyone else or to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline accepted Cowdery's guilty plea in a 32-minute hearing. Beistline set sentencing for March 10.

"I'd like it as soon as possible," Cowdery said, but the judge responded that neither he nor the officials who prepare the pre-sentence report could do it much sooner.

Cowdery, who attended in a wheelchair, said he was concerned that he be allowed to visit his doctor during his confinement.

Beistline said that if Cowdery was in home confinement he would certainly be allowed to go for medical treatment.

"If you go to jail, that's easy, because the doctors are right there," Beistline said, raising a chuckle from the spectator bench occupied by Cowdery's wife and daughter.

As is usually the case when a defendant pleads guilty, much of the hearing was taken up with the judge ensuring that the defendant understood what he was doing and what rights he was waiving. Defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald said Cowdery wasn't wearing his hearing aide and asked that people speak a little louder than normal.

"You want to plead guilty to count one, is that right?" Beistline said slowly and clearly.

"That's true," Cowdery said without hesitation.

By agreeing to plea, Cowdery gives up his right to appeal and must accept the sentence he receives, the judge told him.

Cowdery understood, he said.

"You say you've read the plea agreement?" Beistline asked him.

"Yes, several times," Cowdery replied.

As a felon, the judge told him, "you couldn't possess a firearm for the rest of your life."

Cowdery acknowledged the limitation.

You may never be able to vote again, the judge went on, hold public office, sit on a jury or get certain federal grants.

"It's been explained to me," Cowdery said, sounding a little exasperated.

"The law requires me to do it," Beistline said.

"I forgive you," Cowdery said.

For several minutes more, prosecutor James Goeke, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Anchorage, read a six-page statement of facts that accompanied the plea. Cowdery swore they were true.

The document contained a conversation over breakfast at the old Sunrise Grill in Midtown on June 25, 2006, among Cowdery, Allen and Olson, a Nome Democrat who is still in the Legislature. FBI agents had staked out the place -- they knew about the meeting from a wiretap on Allen's phone -- and managed to get part of the talk recorded.

"As I told you there in my home, this (legislation) is important to (Allen)," Cowdery was recorded saying to Olson. "I told him that I thought you would probably go, you guys would probably vote the way we voted."

Allen asked Olson how much he would need for his upcoming primary election bid. Olson said he had $100,000 of his own but would need more.

"How much are you good for?" Olson asked Allen.

"What?"

"How much are you good for?" Olson repeated.

"Oh, we can probably go 25," Allen said.

"That's a good start," Olson said.

After Olson walked away from the table, Allen and Cowdery continued the conversation.

"What do you think?" Cowdery said.

"I think he'll be there, if he gives us his word," Allen said.

"Absolutely," said Cowdery. "That's what he did."

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


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com