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Alaska's political corruption scandal reaped prison, vindication and uncertainty for the accused

Jill Burke
iStock

Alaska's now infamous political corruption probe netted no less than a dozen people, ranging from U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens to businessmen, lobbyists, a former governor's chief of staff and a handful of state lawmakers. It brought the actions of government attorneys and investigators -- whose botched work forced the U.S. Justice Department to toss out its case against Stevens and place two others under review -- under scrutiny by a federal judge. A handful of other figures connected to the investigations have never been charged.

Here is a round up of the main players and what they're up to now.

Tom Anderson, 43, and Bill Bobrick, 56

Anderson -- 5 years

Bobrick -- 5 months prison and five months of home confinement

The history
Former Alaska legislator Tom Anderson and lobbyist Bill Bobrick were caught in a scheme to launder bribes to Anderson from a corrections company looking to purchase his legislative influence. The duo set up a cover operation that was billed as a newsletter they would produce, when in reality little work on the newsletter was ever done. Unknown to Bobrick and Anderson, the corrections company wasn't in the loop. Instead, in 2004 and 2005, an associate of the firm, Frank Prewitt, worked as an informant for the FBI, and the $24,000 that exchanged hands belonged to the investigative agency. Bobrick avoided prosecution by admitting his own guilt and would go on to testify against Anderson, who was later convicted at trial.

Where are they now?

Bobrick was released from federal probation last March after completing his sentence. Anderson was moved this month to a halfway house in Seattle, after serving a little more than three years of his sentence at a federal prison camp in Sheridan, Ore. At the time of his conviction, he was married to a fellow legislator, state Sen. Lesil McGuire. The couple, who have a young son, have since divorced, according to Anderson's attorney, Wayne Anthony Ross. Custody over the boy appears headed for trial in April. Anderson is due for early release in July 2011.

Bill Allen, 73, and Rick Smith, 62

Sentences

Allen -- 3-1/2 years, $750,000 fine

Smith -- 21 months, $10,000 fine

The history
Powerhouses in Alaska's oil industry, Bill Allen and Rick Smith knew how to grease the state's political wheels. A self-made, rags-to-riches tycoon, Bill Allen used his business empire and oilfield services company, VECO Corp.,  to wield influence in the legislature to further the goals of his oil company clients, who would manage to stay an arm's length away while Allen did the dirty work. The formula was simple: What was good for Big Oil was good for VECO, and Allen and VECO vice president Smith were intent on making sure any new oil tax regime was more palatable than onerous for the industry. Together, they traded more than $400,000 in cash and gifts to lawmakers for assurances of favorable action on key legislation. Many of the backroom deals took place in the now infamous Suite 604 of the Baranoff Hotel, located in the heart of Alaska's capitol. Unknown to Allen and Smith, the rooms were wired. The FBI captured evidence of drunken bravado and ill-formed alliances, and Alaskans suddenly had a window into their government's unseemly underside. Confronted with what they had done, the men folded and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. They both later pleaded guilty and testified at numerous trials. Forced to sell his company, the welder-turned-businessman who was once named Alaskan of the Year lost the empire he had built.

An imperfect witness

 

The defense teams representing accused lawmakers argued that the words out of Allen's mouth couldn't be trusted. Not only did he have a head injury, which may have impaired his memory and ability to talk, but he also had a lot to hide. Over the years of investigation and trials, it was gradually revealed that Allen was accused of repeatedly having sexual encounters with underage prostitutes -- allegations the former tycoon was supposedly desperate to conceal. Defense attorneys also attacked Allen's credibility with claims the powerful businessman and loyal patriarch would be willing to sacrifice himself to spare his children from prosecution.


Where are they now?

Allen is serving out his sentence at a California prison that can accommodate medically needy inmates. He is due for release in November. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and others have called for a renewed investigation into Allen's alleged sexual exploitation of teen-age girls. Smith is currently incarcerated at a federal prison camp in Sheridan, Ore., and is scheduled for release in July.

Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, deceased at age 86

The history

Ted Stevens was by far the most prominent politician caught up the FBI's long-running "polar pen" investigation. He would prove to be a formidable opponent, mounting a vigorous defense led by a sophisticated and powerful lawyer from Washington, D.C., Brendan Sullivan. Up for re-election in 2008 and facing a challenge by Democrat Mark Begich, Anchorage's mayor at the time, Stevens pushed for a speedy trial. He was convicted by a jury on what amounted to a series of paperwork crimes -- failing to report gifts from Allen on his Senate financial disclosure forms, including the renovation of a mountainside cabin in Girdwood. The verdict came one week before Election Day, and Stevens, the longest-serving Senate Republican in U.S. history, lost his seat to Begich. Angered by missteps at trial, the trial judge ordered a criminal investigation into the prosecutors themselves. Myriad mistakes by prosecutors were exposed, the most significant being the failure of government lawyers to hand over evidence helpful to Stevens' case. In a spectacular series of developments, the conviction was voided and the indictment thrown out. One of the young government attorneys involved took his own life as the investigation into prosecutorial misconduct continued. Seeing himself as vindicated, "Uncle Ted" returned home a free man ready to be a fulltime grandfather and enjoy retirement.

Where is he now?

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens died in a plane crash in August, 2010 during a fishing trip outside of Dillingham. Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the funeral, which drew many dignitaries, including members of Congress and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Pete Kott, 61, Bruce Weyhrauch, 57, and Vic Kohring, 52

Sentences
Kott -- 6 years, $10,000 fine
Kohring -- 3-1/2 years
Weyhrauch -- trial pending

The history

Former Alaska state Reps. Pete KottBruce Weyhrauch and Vic Kohring were accused of taking bribes from Allen and VECO for their official help with a new oil tax structure and legislation pertaining to a natural gas pipeline. "These...indictments allege that the defendants sold their offices in Alaska's State House to an influential energy company in exchange for cash payments, loans, jobs for relatives and the promise of future employment," Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said at the time charges against the men were made public. Kott and Kohring were caught on FBI surveillance footage yucking it up with Allen in his Juneau hotel room. Kohring is seen taking cash from Allen. At one point Kott can be heard saying to Allen "I had to get 'er done. So I had to come back and face this man right here (pointing to the CEO). I had to cheat, steal, beg, borrow and lie."

Where they are now?

 

Kott and Kohring were convicted in separate trials and began serving their time, but were released early under Justice Department orders in the wake of the department's decision to toss out the case and convictions against former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens due to mishandling of evidence by prosecutors. They remain free while their appeals make their way through the courts.


Last summer, Weyhrauch won a challenge over evidence before the U.S. Supreme Court. Separately, the High Court's ruling in a similar case narrowed the "honest services" statute to include only bribes and kickbacks, which could have implications in the Alaska cases. Weyhrauch, an attorney, is headed to trial in Anchorage in May but is pushing for the case to be heard in Juneau, his hometown.

Bill Weimar, 70

Sentence

6 months prison followed by 6 months home confinement, $75,000 fine

The history

Bill Weimar, who made his money in the corrections industry as the owner of a chain of halfway houses, was politically active in Alaska for decades. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to illegally funneling $20,000 in 2004 to the election campaign of Sen. Jerry Ward.

Where is he now?

Weimar is now wanted by Sarasota, Fla., police in connection with an alleged sexual assault on a 6-year-old girl last August. An arrest warrant was issued for Weimar in late January a little less than two months after his discharge from federal probation. Until this new brush with authorities Weimar had been living on his boat at a marina in Florida, but recently has not been seen there.

Jim Clark, 67

The history

As chief of staff to former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, Clark wielded so much clout behind-the-scenes that he was once dubbed by a local newspaper "the most powerful unelected official in Alaska." In 2008, he admitted helping orchestrate $68,500 in illegal contributions from Allen and VECO to help keep Murkowski in office for another term. After his plea, Clark avoided sentencing at the request of the government, who repeatedly claimed his assistance was needed in ongoing investigations. Last year, his conviction was thrown out because his guilty plea was for behavior that was no longer considered a crime after a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of fraud.

Where is he now?

Based on his original plea deal, Clark must continue to cooperate with prosecutors. If he doesn't, the government may choose to try him on other charges. Clark, who may be a witness in the upcoming trial against former state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, has said he absolutely intends to uphold his end of the bargain. As for what he's up to, Clark appears to be going about life as usual. He tells Alaska Dispatch he is practicing law, volunteering some, reading, grand-parenting a lot, and "spending a lot of time on a treadmill trying to regain my youthful appearance."

Regarding his (albeit brief) criminal past, Clark says there is a silver lining.

"I learned how many real friends I had in Alaska and I've come to value them and work to stay in contact them more than ever before," he said.


Beverly Masek, 46

Sentence

6 months in prison

The history

Beverly Masek, a former Alaska state representative and Iditarod Sled Dog Race musher, pleaded guilty in 2009 to bribery in connection with accepting $4,000 from Bill Allen and one of Allen's relatives while she was a lawmaker. Masek admitted that she knew part of the reason she received the money was because she had agreed to withdraw a piece of legislation at Allen's request. In seeking a light sentence, Masek's defense attorney argued that at the time of the crimes Masek was going through a difficult divorce with what she claimed was an abusive husband and was therefore vulnerable to authority figures like Allen.

Where is she now?

 

Masek, who portrayed herself in court as a struggling and depressed alcoholic easily manipulated by a money-laden oilman, never spent time behind bars, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Instead, she served out her six-month bribery sentence in a halfway house and was released in March 2010.

John Cowdery, 81

Sentence

6 months home confinement, $25,000 fine

The history

Former Alaska state Sen. John Cowdery admitted to helping connect Bill Allen and Rick Smith with state Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat, in 2006 with the hope that the businessmen would illegally funnel $25,000 to Olson's campaign for lieutenant governor at the time. Conversations intercepted by investigators show that in exchange for the potential contributions, Allen and Smith wanted Olson to take action favorable to VECO on pending oil tax legislation. No money changed hands. Olson did not accept the offer and was never charged.

Where is he now?

Cowdery was sentenced to six months home confinement, which should have been completed by the end of 2009.

Don Young, 77

Investigation status

Dropped

The History

U.S. Rep. Don Young, former chairman of the transportation committee, had been under investigation for years. But last fall, before the primary in his re-election campaign, the career politician definitely stated that he had been advised by the Justice Department that he was no longer under investigation and that no charges would be filed. Young is among the state and federal politicians that former VECO founder Bill Allen claimed to have bribed. Young was also under investigation over a controversial $10 million earmark that would benefit a Florida developer with ties to Young, and for his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, continues to fight for the release of documents about the federal investigation.

Where is he now?

This year Young returned to Congress for a 20th term serving as Alaska's lone U.S. representative.

Ben Stevens, 51

Investigation status

Unknown

The history

The son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, Ben Stevens is a former state senator who found himself under scrutiny -- like many other Alaska politicians, including his father -- for his ties to oilman Bill Allen and Allen's company, VECO. Records show that while Stevens was serving in the state legislature, VECO paid him about $250,000 in consulting fees. In his plea deal, Allen admitted that the younger Stevens is among the lawmakers he bribed over the years.

Where is he now?

To date, Stevens has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Jerry Ward, 62

Investigation status

Unknown

The history

Former state Sen. Jerry Ward was accused with conspiring with a private businessman, Bill Weimar, to take an illegal $20,000 campaign donation in 2004. Although Weimar pleaded guilty and went to prison over the scandal, Ward was never charged.

Where is he now?

Ward's name surfaced in 2008 during a bizarre twist in the criminal trial against U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. A witness in the case claimed he was testifying in exchange for immunity against prosecution for himself and several others, including Ward. Federal prosecutors denied the allegation, and said this supposed immunity agreement was concocted by Ward out of paranoia. They said Ward was under investigation in an unrelated case -- presumably the Weimar campaign money scheme -- and was attempting to make it look as though he were off the hook. The witness and Ward share a family connection. The witness, Dave Anderson, was at the time dating Ward's daughter, who at one time had also dated star Stevens witness Bill Allen -- Anderson's uncle.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.