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 fourth installment in a series through which Mr. Kohring intends to tell his own side of the federal probe of public corruption in Alaska.
Most of us never expect to end up in court as a target of our own government. I certainly never did, at least not in a criminal court. We feel confident that if in the unlikely event we're accused of serious wrong doing, that we will at a minimum be guaranteed our rights to a fair trial as promised in the Constitution. After all, this is not Cuba or North Korea. I grew up believing this, having learned in civics class in school that our country's judicial system is the world's best and is supposed to ensure fairness. But I rudely discovered it's not true in all cases, that some defendants are abused by over zealous prosecutors who manipulate the system and even judges resolved to achieve a conviction regardless of one's innocence.
As discussed in previous commentaries, I was the subject of prosecutors determined to put me in prison, even if it meant cheating and unknowingly, but rightfully, subjecting themselves to a criminal investigation. One such investigation was indeed triggered and the results are going to be released in March, which many are watching with great anticipation. An Anchorage Daily News article in February on the subject attracted a public comment from a man who asked: "Will someone please explain why the AG and his entire prosecution team are not sitting in a federal prison right now?" I think a lot of people are wondering the same, myself included. I would leave out Attorney General Holder though, as he was responsible for my release from prison following the discovery of prosecutorial misconduct and the intentional concealment of evidence. By the time I went to trial in October 2007 after waiting 14 excruciating months, I was not aware of the behind-closed-door antics and even criminal conduct of FBI agents and prosecutors assigned to my case, which wasn't revealed until two years later. I went into the trial feeling confident, convinced I would be treated fairly and that the government would conduct itself with integrity including granting me my full constitutional rights. I actually looked forward to the trial as a way to exonerate myself and expected to walk away a free man. But as I look back, I realize I was naïve about the realities of our court system and found myself learning the hard way.
My trial began Oct. 22, 2007, with over 100 prospective jurors called from all over the state. From this group, it was narrowed down to a dozen. Judge Sedwick clearly pointed out that if a juror knew the defendant, or even knew a friend or a wife knew or was friends with the defendant, that juror should bring up this fact to his attention and be recused. This was to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. He did this quite professionally and correctly. But judges are subject to the exact same protocols, even to a higher degree than jurors. Sedwick never once disclosed the fact that his wife was put out of a job by me or that the government’s star witness, Bill Allen, was his next door neighbor! He did not follow his own standards demanded of others. And I did not discover his blatant conflicts until after the trial and my unfortunate conviction!
My attorney portrayed me as an Andy Griffith-type. A simple, friendly, even a little naïve kind of guy who gets along well with nearly anyone and tries to help people with their problems, too. He was right. But of course the prosecution's intent was to engage in "character assassination" and make me out to be no better than the infamous “Son of Sam.” This included ridicule in front of the jury and petty name calling. Pretty low. Yet during the trial on more than one occasion, a reporter approached me to say he and his media colleagues were conducting informal polls among themselves. And the consensus always was, I was going to win my case. So they too could see through the malarkey and recognized that the government's arguments that I committed crimes over Easter eggs was ridiculous.
The courtroom was almost aways jam-packed each day. The whole scene was a huge, silly spectacle. I remember chuckling at times to myself about the absurdity of it all, because the case revolved around a tiny amount of money and an Easter basket. But government bureaucrats' careers were at stake, from FBI agents, the prosecutors and the judge. So they needed a victory and conviction to justify their positions. High school government classes even attended and did reports on their observations. Spectators off the streets were there out of curiosity. A lady was drafting hand-written pictures of the various scenes for display on the evening news since cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom. The only thing missing were vendors selling souvenirs, hot dogs, cotton candy and pictures of people standing next to a card board cutout of myself. The whole scene was ludicrous … and a colossal waste of taxpayers' money.
Little did I know the buzz-saw I was about to run into as the trial began including the tricks up the prosecutors sleeves, in a deceitful effort to derail my chances of success in court. Those tricks included hiding thousands of pages of evidence, trotting out witnesses to lie on the stand (including at least one FBI agent who bald-faced lied on the stand, denying that my personal lawyer and friend knocked on my office door during their "raid" the previous year, asking to speak with me and provide legal advice), pressuring the government's central witness to testify in a way advantageous to their position by threatening him and his family, and so forth. The list was long. The prosecutors presented maybe one-tenth -- that's right -- just one-tenth of the most important evidence in their possession, and only select portions beneficial to them. They concealed the rest, unbeknownst at the time to me and my lawyer. We were operating on the assumption that they were being fair and playing by the rules, such as making sure all evidence was disclosed as required by law. Evidence such as statements made in private interviews with the FBI by "star" witness Bill Allen, Veco CEO, were concealed including his admission that he (Allen's direct quotes) "never asked Vic to do anything in exchange for cash or some benefit.” Or that he “never gave him (me) money for a legislative act..." These statements were the proverbial smoking guns, providing clear evidence that Allen never bribed me as the government dishonestly claimed. But since prosecutors failed to provide this information, the jurors had an incomplete picture of what really went on and therefore made misinformed decisions as part of my subsequent convictions.
Then there was an enormous problem with the judge which I didn't discover until later. It turns out he was married to one of my most bitter political opponents in Juneau. My legislation eliminated Deborah Sedwick's high paying job. And the year before, I chaired a finance budget subcommittee which cut millions of dollars out of her budget to her dismay (she was commissioner of the department, the head person). At the end of the trial, the day the verdict was read, she suddenly showed up in the courtroom. It was a dumb move on her part as it enabled me to make the association between the judge and his wife and the fact that he had a serious conflict of interest which he attempted to slip by everyone unnoticed. During a break, I recognized Mrs. Sedwick, not knowing she was the judge's wife, and walked over to offer my greetings. But she was hostile and reluctantly shook my hand when I extended it as a courtesy. She glared at me with anger and intensity. I sensed hatred. It was all so creepy. I wondered why she was even there to begin with. Was it to watch me suffer in front of her husband? Did she revel and enjoy witnessing the spectacle and my demise?
Earlier during the trial's proceedings, I wondered why the judge was so openly hostile to my attorney and me. He didn't attempt to hide his seething anger one bit. Ironically, I had no idea why at the time. I assumed he simply didn't like me personally, perhaps because of my legislative background and conservative, limited government political philosophy. I received serious negative vibrations from the judge. It was shocking. His look, his mannerisms, body language, tone of voice, all suggested an angry man who wished me harm. Worse was his hostile attitude displayed toward my attorney. All of this seriously concerned me and made me wonder why.
I wondered why he frequently argued with my lawyer and cut him off, many times preventing him from making his points. And most important, I wondered why he denied my motions, including a valid request to relocate the trial despite months of negative press coverage making it impossible to seat a fair and impartial jury. Not to mention a request that I be permitted to present evidence including witnesses on the very issue I was being charged -- my words, "Let me know what I can do to help?" They were the supposed words of a quid pro quo. The judge refused my lawyer's request to present such "Habit Evidence" as it's called. This is the term for evidence involving a person saying something repeatedly out of habit, such as, "My door is always open; let me know how I may help." These very words were what the prosecutors hung their hats on to convict me and were the most crucial portion of my evidence to prove my innocence. And Judge Sedwick knew it. Yet he screwed me over by rejecting the evidence, including numerous witnesses from a list of 80 we assembled.
It wasn't until after the trial and my convictions that I discovered there was a connection between the judge and his wife, my arch political rival. It then dawned on me why the judge was so biased throughout the trial and why he seemed so determined to contribute to my convictions. Two jurors even called me after the trial and shared their thoughts, which confirmed my suspicions. It turns out that most of the group did not want to convict me, for they saw me as a good guy who was swept up in the larger FBI investigation of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens. They told me that they felt intimidated and pressured during the trial and their deliberations, explaining the jury foreman was outspoken and seemed determined to find me guilty for some reason, as if he had a chip on his shoulder. The man was not being open-minded, they said. It turns out the foreman was a government worker and part of the state's biggest employee union, a leftist, pro-government group which vehemently opposed me during each of my seven campaigns for office. This guy practically burned holes in me with his eyes whenever he looked my way. It was scary knowing he was overseeing things. I learned later that behind closed doors in the jury deliberation room, he tried hard to sway -- even manipulate -- his colleagues on the jury to convict me. So my odds of winning were really stacked against me. Despite this adversity, I still came very close to winning according to the jurors with whom I spoke. Most could see through the smoke.
In reality, there was little hope of winning right from the start. The odds were nearly 100 percent against me: An angry, vindictive judge, prosecutors bent on a conviction at nearly any cost and a salivating Anchorage Daily News with their lesser accomplice, Channel 2 News, all combined to virtually ensure a guilty verdict. Therefore, my presence at the trial and my attorneys' arguments were nothing but a charade and going through the motions of a wasted effort. I sensed this early on and was able to accurately predict the outcome of the trial. In fact when the verdict was read, I was prepared -- and expected -- the worst, which did occur. So although extremely disappointing, it didn't come as a total shock. The newspapers reported I looked stoic upon the news, a little red-faced and without any real reaction.
A large group of FBI agents, prosecutors and support staff sat dutifully behind the prosecutors' table in the courtroom each day. There must have been 30 G-men, all lined up like stiff little troopers. Loyal government soldiers. All at attention, looking straight ahead, motionless (and emotionless) as if robots. Almost inhuman. When I encountered their leaders, the prosecutors, during breaks, they were some of the most rapacious people you'd ever meet. Completely hostile. I wanted to give them a piece of my mind, but refrained, thinking it served no purpose to stoop to their level. Besides, it would have been like poking a pit bull with a stick.
Nephew's courageous testimony
My teenage nephew Aaron was called as a witness by the government. I was very proud of him for testifying with great confidence and courage. Very poised, honest and truthful. He approached the witness stand with broad shoulders, appearing as a blond, Clark Kent look-alike. Yet he was only a 19-year old college sophomore. Aaron had every reason to feel intimidated. He too was pressured by the FBI and forced to speak with them privately and later testify in court before a jury in a crowded courtroom with a couple hundred spectators, press, attorneys, prosecutors and judge. But he held up great.
The prosecution did its best, albeit very poorly, to portray Aaron's two-month summer internship with Veco as a fraud, when in reality, his job was completely legit and he proved to be one of their best workers. His supervisor even testified that he was an excellent employee. Aaron took time off from his difficult and time-consuming engineering studies at the University of Alaska and flew down from Fairbanks for a full day to help his uncle. He did so without hesitation. His schedule was jam-packed that day. First, it was catching a flight to Anchorage early in the morning, rushing to the federal building in a taxi, testifying in court and then racing back to the airport for a return flight to Fairbanks and a resumption of his studies on campus. All within a 10-hour time period. And without a single complaint.
During one of the breaks in the trial's proceedings, I was pulled aside by Jill Burke of KTUU, Channel 2 News, one of the few reporters I respected. She asked that I acquiesce to an interview about my nephew. I was happy to do so, but found myself choking up on camera when talking about how much I loved him -- like a son. Aaron's very special. The interview remains on the Internet to this day.
Sweating out a misguided verdict
I waited a full day for the verdict. That was a painfully long 24 hours on pins and needles, waiting, wondering. It turns out the jury took as long as it did because they did not want to find me guilty. But they were boxed in by the judge's "jury instructions." I know because of the two jurors who called me after the trial and explained precisely what went on. They said the group agonized over finding me guilty and tried their best to find a way to exonerate me. But they were also fighting the judge and his restrictive instructions. One of the jurors said she felt the judge "forced our hand and left us with no choice." He essentially provided them without the option of finding me innocent. It was basically selecting the "lesser of two evils" as the saying goes (both choices being guilty verdicts). Both people also told me several of the jurors were in tears as they walked into the courtroom to announce their decision as they knew it would devastate me, a married man with a little step-daughter to raise. It was a very emotional moment.
At least I won on one of the charges if it's any consolation -- being found "not guilty" on one of the four. So it was not a total loss and a victory of sorts. Naturally the press never mentions this. It's always the "guilty" verdicts they harp on and drill in people's heads to make it appear it was a clean sweep for their government heroes. So the public's assumption was that I was guilty across the board on every single charge. I wouldn't expect the socialist Anchorage Daily News or their pals at Channel 2 to be fair to a conservative, limited government legislator.
If I were indeed a crook and had evil, sinister intentions in my heart and a desire to break the law, I would have sought way more than a "pittance" (the judge's word). Instead of five, twenty dollar bills from Allen for Easter eggs, I would have sought hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Why not go for it? The $100.00 Allen gave me, which I did not solicit, speaks clearly as to whether I was guilty of bribery. A million or maybe ten or twenty thousand, yes -- but not a lousy $100.00. After all, we were dealing with a $20-billion pipeline, worth hundreds of millions in construction contracts to Allen's company, Veco. Allen probably would have offered me far more if I desired to engage in bribery, as he definitely had the money. The man's worth a half billion. But I did not and it was never my intention.
If the government was truly interested in seeking justice instead of a conviction at any cost, it would have simply passed my case along to the Legislature's ethics committee, instead of making a huge federal case out of an Easter basket. If the committee then felt my receipt of Allen's gifts were inappropriate, they would have possibly fined me. But for the government to instead charge me with multiple felonies was huge overkill and nothing but a shameful desire on the prosecutors’ part to exploit me, take down a sitting state legislator and further individual prosecutors' careers at my expense. It was not only an affront to me, but to my community and thousands of former constituents, whom I represented with great pride for seven terms.
I am reminded of a quote by Thomas Jefferson: "Most bad government has grown out of too much government." What I experienced is a direct offshoot of the exponentially larger and out of control government we're witnessing today.
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.