Editor's note: The following commentary was first featured in Make-A-Scene, a monthly community publication serving readers in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. It is the third installment in a series in which Mr. Kohring intends to tell his own side of the federal Alaska public corruption probe.
In my previous commentary, I discussed the FBI's raid on my legislative office by a swarm of armed agents in August 2006 and how the government attempted to bully me. Then a sham trial, followed by imprisonment. The following narrative describes the difficult and stressful sequence of events occurring between the raid and my trial which began a year later, including my false conviction. Did Truth and Justice prevail? It did not.
Following the FBI raid, the government left me hanging, speculating what their intentions may be. Were they going to charge me? If so, when? I wondered each day following the raid if that was the day they would show up. I was continually looking behind my back, so to speak. This went on for eight months, including the entire 120-day legislative session. The pressure made it difficult to concentrate on my job as the situation was very distracting. I was accustomed to staying up late in my office, often past midnight before I quit, working on constituent matters, e-mail responses and letters to people. But since I was so stressed and distracted by the government, I could only function at about 50 percent at best. Consequently, the public was not provided the level of service they were entitled to or had become accustomed to receiving from my office.
The stress of wondering and waiting was enormous. I was already in the pressure cooker of the legislative session and had just concluded a difficult campaign for re-election. Adding in the strain of a potential indictment, doubled the intensity of my stress. The only way I could cope was to place myself in "survival mode," taking things a day, sometimes an hour at a time. Immersing myself in my work and lots of prayer helped a lot. I constantly wondered when the FBI might burst into my legislative office to arrest and place me in handcuffs. It would not be beneath them to do so during the session. The prosecutors, the same five individuals later assigned to Sen. Ted Stevens case who made his life a misery as well, made sure I was fully aware that I was subject to an indictment. A few days before I left for the start of the session in Juneau, the lead prosecutor requested I meet with him in the Department of "Justice's" office in the federal building in downtown Anchorage. But he didn't say why. He called my attorney Wayne Ross to request a meeting between himself, Ross and I. Little did I know I was being set up, leaving me to believe it would involve just the three of us. But such deceit is the way this group operates. Lies, manipulation and deceit are the norm. When I arrived with Ross, we were ambushed by a room full of prosecutors and FBI agents. There were at least a dozen people seated in a conference room. The lead prosecutor took a seat straight across the large oak table from me, deliberately positioning himself to make sure I was in full view of his file folder marked in bold letters, "Grand Jury." During this meeting, they showed me and Ross the FBI's secret video tapes of my get-togethers with various people including Bill Allen, which they erroneously claimed proved illegal conduct. Afterward, I remained silent while Ross rightly declared it "B.S."
The head guy, knowing the state of shock I was in, attempted to take advantage of the moment and pressure me into accepting an offer -- that if I agreed to plead guilty, he would ask the judge to "go easy at my sentencing." 'What a joke', I thought, because his offer involved no guarantees. And besides, I was not guilty -- at least not of a crime. I later discovered that the judge's standards were less than honorable. His subsequent decisions directly affected my case and proved devastating, as he denied me my constitutional rights by refusing to permit all evidence be used in my trial to clear my name. We are supposed to be entitled to present all evidence, not what a judge selectively decides.
The suspense was taxing, if not cruel. Knowing what I now know of the prosecutors and FBI agents -- cocky, egotistical, arrogant people with little interest in seeking truth and justice, but rather a conviction. They collected no new information concerning me during the months following their staged meeting in the conference room the previous January. Instead, they wanted to further intimidate me by waiting several months before lowering the boom. When I agreed to attend the lead prosecutor's meeting with his hungry colleagues and FBI agents, I remember looking straight into the eyes of these government people. You could see the disgusting pleasure on some of their faces.
I thought how they contribute nothing of real value to society as would a doctor, engineer or construction worker, all of whom better our communities. Instead they are a net drag by often needlessly attacking innocent people with outrageous claims of criminal behavior. But with karma as it is, I trust they likewise sweated while being subject to their recent criminal investigation. It's too bad they weren't charged and dragged through a trial as they did me and found themselves in jail where they rightfully belong.
Grand Jury, Indictment
During the prosecution's grand jury presentation, the hidden evidence has since revealed that the prosecutors and FBI agents were not fully up-front and honest with their presentation of facts before the grand jurors. They ignored ample evidence showing Allen and I were friends. They also ignored Allen's private admissions that he did not bribe me, among many other crucial pieces of evidence, all of which would have cleared my name. The evidence revealed that Allen admitted in private interviews with the FBI that my assertions were true -- that no bribes occurred and that the small amount of money given me were indeed gifts without any attached strings. Yet Allen went on the stand and testified the opposite, which is precisely what the prosecution wanted as part of their pre-arranged deal to limit his jail time and keep his children from being indicted. This is what prompted my recent defamation lawsuit against him. The prosecutors concealed these facts, insisting I was guilty of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. Yet they knew better. They knew the truth, but instead concealed it and allowed me to be convicted anyway.
Once the prosecution decided to pursue an indictment against me, it was inevitable I would be charged. That's because grand juries nearly always give the government what it wants. There's an old saying that "It's so easy to obtain an indictment, that a ham sandwich can be charged." Grand juries are made up of every day citizens, who can easily be swayed by lying and manipulating prosecutors. That's exactly what happened.
It's also inevitable in nearly all cases that an indictment will be handed down if the government is determined to obtain one against an individual. I was no exception. Grand jurors are typically ordinary, trusting people who will believe nearly anything a slick, smooth-talking government attorney says. They rely heavily on the prosecutors to be straight, honest and up-front. Yet that didn't happen. To compound things, the prosecutors also denied the jurors access to the mountain of concealed evidence, preventing a complete picture from being presented. They spoon-fed only what they wanted the jurors to hear. By greatly slanting their side of things to their advantage, it virtually guaranteed an indictment.
The government's primary prosecutor -- one of those who deliberately concealed crucial evidence in both Sen. Ted Stevens case and mine and thereby finding himself subject to a criminal investigation -- became red-faced when presenting their so-called "facts" on my case in his effort to convince the grand jurors to issue an indictment. The back of his neck became bright red as he spoke, causing one of the jurors to ask what was wrong and wonder out loud in front of his fellow jurors if he was being honest with his presentation. The juror sensed the man was lying. This was one of the many pieces of concealed evidence my attorney could have used during the trial. But it was hidden from me. The prosecutor feebly answered to the jurors that his redness occurs whenever he gets passionate about his work. In reality, he was lying to cover up his deeds so as to prevent the unsuspecting grand jury from hearing the truth and all of the facts.
"Fugitive" Status, Arrest
My attorney believed I would be indicted on a certain day in May 2007, based on his previous experiences with clients. It was narrowed down to a Friday afternoon. His calculations proved correct. Anticipating this, I decided to hide out in Juneau and away from the state Capitol building, as I fully expected the G-men to make a huge spectacle of me by arresting me at my office inside the capitol building. Sure enough, that was precisely their intent. But they failed as I was away from my office and therefore didn't give them the satisfaction. I carefully planned my get-away several days in advance and even rented a minivan to have a place to sleep as I camped out of town. I spent one night in the van, in the parking lot of North Outer Point, a popular king salmon fishing spot in Juneau. It was the perfect stress relief, although the pressure was still intense as I expected a horde of FBI agents to swarm Juneau to hunt me down.
The FBI sent a group of agents to arrest me and tipped off the press beforehand, so that they could ensure lots of hostile coverage against me. As it turned out, I wasn't present. I would have been the first sitting legislator in 30 years to be arrested and the very first to have been arrested at the Capitol building itself during a session. Instead, I was casting for kings at my favorite fishing hole on Douglas Island, 20 miles away! It ticked off the FBI so bad to have lost their grand opportunity, that they threatened me with "fugitive" status if I didn't immediately turn myself in. But I refused to return to the capitol building as I didn't want to give them the pleasure of arresting me at their treasured location. It was agreed we would instead rendezvous at the federal building in downtown Juneau, two miles from the capitol.
Despite experiencing the terrifying ordeal of being arrested by the FBI, perhaps the world's most feared group of secret police, at least I denied them the spectacle of arresting me at the capitol building. As I drove to the federal building in my rented vehicle, I found a place to park and walked up the sidewalk to the building knowing FBI agents were waiting. It was one of the scariest, tensest and loneliest moments of my life.
The FBI deliberately put me in handcuffs and paraded me in from of the press like an animal to give the media a chance to take video and pictures of me in cuffs. But after walking just 25 feet around the corner to the elevator to be fingerprinted and have a mugshot taken, out of view of the press, they removed them. I wasn't going to run away and was fully cooperating, so the cuffs were pointless. Little does the public know what manipulation really goes on behind the scenes.
As I walked in front of the mob of press people, I could hear the sounds of hundreds of camera shutters clicking. Sure enough, on the front page of the next day's Anchorage Daily News, was a huge color photo of me in handcuffs. If the legislator being arrested was a statist, a big government advocate or one of the many liberals masquerading as Republicans, they would have found any number of excuses to greatly limit the coverage and bury the news somewhere else.
Almost immediately after the indictment, I became the target of a recall election. A local political gadfly and mayoral candidate spear-headed the effort, collecting signatures in an attempt to have the issue placed on the ballot. Not enough signatures were collected before I resigned, despite the circus-like effort complete with banners and tents set up around town for weeks. I resigned not because of the recall effort, but because I chose to focus my energies on winning my trial that fall.
The leader of the recall was attempting to become a celebrity at my expense and take advantage of my misfortune. He also tried to use his new-found name recognition from all the anti-Vic publicity he generated to parlay into being elected mayor of Wasilla. When that didn't work, he stuck with seeking re-election to his city council seat instead. His efforts caused him to fail winning re-election even to the council as people were annoyed by the spectacle. He even gathered a few of his buddies to publicly mock me with protest signs as I drove up to the site of my resignation speech -- the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. As I arrived, he yelled at me through my car window that I should resign. I looked at him in the eye as I slowly drove past, five feet away. It wasn't very pleasant. I would have been embarrassed if I were him as you don't kick a guy when he's down.
I did not resign due to the recall initiative, but rather to focus my time and energies on winning the trial. Little did I know that the government was working overtime to defeat me in court, including lying and cheating, to accomplish their cherished goal of winning at trial against a state legislator. I assumed they would act with honor and dignity by legitimately seeking out whether I was innocent. But I assumed wrong as I completely misread them by discovering they were focused on my defeat at nearly any cost.
A big crowd of people opposing me -- the usual leftist crowd -- assembled outside the Wasilla Chamber meeting hall chanting when I arrived to give my speech, with some waving derogatory signs demanding that I resign. I countered with my own group carrying pro-Vic signs. Naturally, the press ignored my supporters, but seriously played up my opponents. I gave my resignation speech before a packed Wasilla Chamber of Commerce weekly meeting. I fought the battle against the local big government crowd (the chamber was known at the time to have a significant government employee membership) right to the bitter end, even up to the very moment of my resignation. The chairman of the Wasilla Chamber and another political foe attempted to block my speech and keep me from walking to the podium and deliver my remarks. He tried in vain to argue that the chamber was not the right venue for the speech, that the day's schedule didn't allow time for me to speak and so on.
My encounter with the head of the chamber nearly became a physical altercation before hundreds of people. With fatigue and a little dizziness from my recent surgery and among a bank of a dozen microphones, I announced my resignation from the Legislature before a packed house in the ballroom of the Lake Lucille/Best Western Inn, explaining I was being forced to focus on my upcoming trial. Following my speech, significant applause erupted, including from quite a few who kindly gave me a standing ovation. It was wonderful. I was a little shocked, even a bit overwhelmed at the strong show of support. And not a single boo, taunt or derogatory comment.
Many family, friends and supporters were in attendance at my speech. Afterward, I was swarmed by the media paparazzi seeking interviews. It was a zoo. Forty five minutes later with the ballroom nearly empty, I was still standing there taking questions. It was awkward but went with the territory and was to be expected.
At the onset of this entire legal fiasco, I felt an attorney was not necessary. But when it became increasingly clear the government was coming at me with all barrels blazing, I had no choice but to obtain at least minimal legal advice. So I turned to well-known and respected lawyer Wayne Anthony Ross, or "WAR," as he likes to be called. WAR has practiced law in Alaska for the last several decades and knows his stuff. He thinks the same as I on the issues and is tough in the face of pressure. He likes to take on high-profile cases too. It was a good fit at first, but as the case began to get uglier and it became evident the government was determined to destroy and throw me in prison, I eventually switched to John Henry Browne of Seattle, an even better-known criminal defense attorney in the Pacific Northwest with a reputation for being a "pit bull on crack."
WAR was later appointed by the governor as Alaska's attorney general. But his confirmation was cowardishly voted down during a joint session of the House and Senate. The word is he angered too many leftist, liberal, statist legislators by supporting me and declaring my innocence during one of his confirmation hearings in committee. The general consensus was my legal situation cost WAR confimration as the state's AG. But he has taken his lack of formal confirmation and thus removal as attorney general in stride and hasn't held it against me, which shows the man's strong character. WAR served for about a month until his confirmation vote fiasco. He said he served just long enough to get his picture hung on the wall outside the AG's office at the state Department of Law, which apparently was good enough for him.
Mr. Browne has a colorful background in his own right. He is known for being outspoken and flamboyant, having once represented executed serial killer Ted Bundy. Browne filed numerous, legitimate motions with the court on my behalf prior to the trial, but most were in vain as the judge rejected every single one of substance. They included a well-reasoned change of venue, despite a vicious effort by the press led by the Anchorage Daily News to try and convict me in their papers. Another was a request that all evidence be allowed (something no one should have to bother to file as one's constitutional rights to a fully open trial are supposed to be automatically guaranteed), a dismissal of the case due to interference by another legislator who was collaborating with the FBI and attempted to manipulate me into copping a plea, among several others.
I learned a month later that this same judge had a huge conflict of interest and appeared to despise me over my legislation, House Bill 40, which eliminated his wife's high-paying state government job. So he rejected my most important motions that would have positioned me well to win my case. I was hamstrung by a vindictive judge determined to harm me. I didn't learn of his conflicts until after the trial and not until after all the damage was done.
The judge repeatedly denied my constitutional rights. Unfortunately judges like him act as little dictators on a power trip and use their positions of authority to ruin lives of people. He was highly motivated to injure me over his wife's job loss, even though my reasons for eliminating his wife's job were not politically or personally motivated in the slightest. My goal was simply to achieve downsizing of our huge state government bureaucracy consisting of an army of 28,000 workers, by merging and consolidating agencies and to streamline programs and deliver services with less overhead. Little did I know what the future would hold and that my fate would end up in the hands of a judge with a score to settle, who coincidentally was married to my biggest political opponent. Several of my former constituents recognized the travesty of the situation and filed a formal complaint against the judge for failing to declare his conflict of interest. Federal law requires that judges declare even what may amount to a perception of a conflict. For this judge to preside over my case and refuse to step down despite his wife's antagonistic relationship with me over her $110,000-a-year job loss -- not to mention the fact that he lived literally next door to Bill Allen, the government's "star" witness used to convict me -- it created far more than a simple "perception." It was an actual conflict, and a monstrous one at that. The judge was in direct violation of the law. Unfortunately only an impeachment by Congress removes a federal judge, a very unlikely event. So the chances of him ever being held accountable are slim.
My father fought on the front lines of the battlefields in France against the Germans with the 14th Armored Division in World War II to protect our freedoms and constitutional rights. He risked his life so that I may be guaranteed these rights. Yet the judge made a mockery out of my dad's service and sacrifice by teaming up with the FBI and government prosecutors to blatantly deny his son the very rights he fought and risked his life for.
The result of the government's cheating in tandem with a compliant judge with a huge chip on his shoulder, was the expenditure of a quarter million dollars of my own money to defend myself. It resulted in my becoming financially destitute. Not only was I devastated financially, but my wife divorced me out of a genuine fear of being harassed by the government, and I lost my job and career and had a year of my freedom taken away by being locked up in prison. Not to mention being in a major car wreck as a passenger with my attorney and injuring my back and neck four days before my trial, necessitating major surgery. Liberal editorialists laughed off the accident, foolishly claiming I was in a minor "fender bender," even though both vehicles were totaled and my head smashed the windshield from the force of the wreck, despite my seat belt and air bag.
Much of what I experienced demonstrated corruption within our federal judiciary. You have prosecutors who don't hesitate to cheat and judges who corroborate and take sides with the government with little interest in a defendant's innocence. Attorney Wayne Ross warned me days before the start of the trial that my judge had a reputation for being "pro prosecutor" and on the side of the government in most cases. The judge certainly proved himself. It was a hard lesson to learn, for I went to court optimistic and confident I would win once all of the evidence was brought forth. So much so, I was actually at ease and relaxed. But I was naïve, because in reality I had zero chance before this particular judge who was determined to make sure I was found guilty through the use of his position.
Once my trial commenced Oct. 22, 2007, I was at a distinct disadvantage. I was assigned a pro-prosecutor, pro-government judge, resolved to see me convicted as part of a personal vendetta. And a group of highly ambitious prosecutors came after me with a vengeance with a singular goal of nailing a conservative legislator at nearly any cost, as if it were some kind of game.
As I reflect back, I now realize I was wasting my time and money spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of my own hard earned money defending myself. It's a sad fact that if our government really wants you, there's no escaping. The promise of being guaranteed constitutional rights to a fair and open trial, and that flushing out one's innocence if charged will be paramount through the pursuit of truth and justice, is often times nothing but a fallacy. A Reuters news agency article dated Jan. 9, 2012 concerning the overreach of the U.S. government against its citizens was best summed up by a reader's comment: "Let us beware. Our federal government will stop at nothing." He's right.
I'll continue next time with a discussion of my trial and the unfortunate outcome.
Vic Kohring represented Wasilla, Chugiak and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in the Alaska House of Representatives. He was first elected in 1994 and resigned in 2007.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.