Editor's note: A version of the following commentary was first featured in Make-A-Scene, a monthly community publication serving readers in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. It is the tenth installment in a series through which Mr. Kohring intends to tell his own side of the federal probe of public corruption in Alaska.
Following my fraudulent convictions on Nov. 1, 2007, the presiding judge, John Sedwick of the U.S. District Court, announced (seemingly happy) that my sentencing would take place February 6th, three months later. To wait over 90 days to learn my fate simply to accommodate him and his schedule and convenience, was malicious. Worse, he prolonged it until May 8th, a full six months after the trial, since issues surrounding his personal conflicts of interest arose which he failed to disclose as required by federal law.
Sedwick seemed to take pleasure seeing me sweat by keeping me in suspense. When that dreadful day finally arrived after several tense months wondering how far the boom would be lowered, I awoke early to make my trek to the federal courthouse in Anchorage. I was nearly in shock with stress, fearful of my future at the hands of a vengeful judge. Little did I know how momentous, even bizarre, the day would be. The lengthy, half-year-long wait proved only a charade on Sedwick's part as he blew off my motion that he step down and turn my case over to a different judge with no personal bias. He had no intention to do the honorable thing, making a mockery of the judicial process. And he stretched things out for months to torment me, pretending to take the matter of his wife's job loss from my legislation seriously.
Since the entire legal fiasco left me financially destitute with little more than the clothes I wore, I borrowed a car from friends to drive from Wasilla to the sentencing hearing in town. It was an old Chevy Blazer, but at least dependable -- or so I thought. Halfway in, ironically at the same spot I used to wave at commuters during my campaigns, the vehicle sputtered and rolled to a stop.
I thought, "How could this happen now of all times?" The most inopportune time and Murphy's Law at its best. I was forced to hitchhike, otherwise I would miss the court hearing and tick off the judge who no doubt would accuse me of stonewalling. Feeling embarrassed with heavy morning traffic whizzing by, I thumbed it and was picked up immediately. It was a supporter and former constituent. When I explained my predicament, he called his wife and arranged that I be placed on their church's prayer chain. He then took me all the way into Anchorage even though he had to double back to his job in Eagle River. I arrived in court with two minutes to spare, remarkable considering the difficulties I encountered.
The courtroom was a carnival atmosphere, full of salivating press, stoic government people and curious spectators. It seemed surreal that this large crowd was there on my account. I reluctantly rose when the judge walked in (finding it difficult to respect a man who treated me with such disdain) and took my seat at the defendant's table, only to listen to the prosecutors berate and insult me, pressuring the judge to sentence me to a ludicrous six years. Joe Bottini, also one of Sen. Ted Stevens' prosecutors who later found himself target of a criminal investigation for deliberately concealing evidence in Stevens' case and mine, ridiculed me before the judge with words such as "politely corrupt " and that I "deserved" prison. That was a full 20 months before his deceitful intent was exposed. He and his co-conspirator prosecutors were caught red-handed intentionally hiding evidence Stevens and I could have used to clear our names. An unethical, overzealous man publicly excoriating me after scheming with his buddies to cheat their way to victory, while quietly possessing knowledge of the truth. Hard to imagine how he kept a clear conscience or slept at night.
It was then my turn to speak. I took full advantage of the opportunity since I regrettably didn't testify during my trial and therefore had much to say in my defense. Before the podium and mike in front of a packed courtroom, I looked upward at Judge Sedwick on his chair positioned above me (to symbolize a judge's power over a defendant), straight in the eye from fifteen feet away while not backing down for a second. I was finally confronting the greatest impediment to my exoneration, a man with a personal grudge over battles I fought with his wife. I was cautioned not to challenge him, but I had no choice as it was my only real and last chance to publicly say what needed saying. I glanced to my right and noticed an entourage of G-Men -- FBI agents, prosecutors and their small army of staff, maybe 30 in all. It was pathetic to see them show up to gloat, back-slap and cheer each other on.
Angering the judge weighed heavily on my mind since my future was in his hands. The convictions, bogus as they were, still carried a maximum sentence of over a quarter-century. A frightening thought, which is why I was so troubled that Sedwick forced me to wait over six months before sentencing, leaving me hanging. But I would not let him intimidate and keep me from speaking my mind. My words were hard-hitting but honest, intended to hold accountable the judge, whom I largely blame for my devastating loss in court after denying several reasonable motions and requests crucial to my case. One, a change of venue motion following the negative media onslaught against me. Another, and most important, that I be permitted to present evidence including witnesses on the very issue I was accused -- my mantra of "Let me know what I can do to help," supposedly words of a quid pro quo involving Veco CEO Bill Allen. I appropriately blasted Sedwick for his conflicts of interest including his failure to disclose living next door to prosecution "star" witness Allen and that his wife was my biggest political opponent as a legislator over budget cutting disputes. I also made clear that I didn't fear him and had no intention of "cowering" in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence. Speaking the truth and getting crucial points across were more important than the length of any prison sentence. It was a chance I had to take, a matter of principle.
Sedwick's sentence was smaller than expected, though not surprising as I'm convinced he had ulterior motives. It had nothing to do with sympathy. My unyielding remarks unintentionally set the stage for the sentencing. Since I held Sedwick to task and did so resolutely before the world, he was caught off guard and thus didn't want to appear vindictive. He saw how I scored a direct hit by exposing his conflicts, never expecting I would have courage to bring them to light. In addition, my supporters filed a formal complaint against him several days before for refusing to recuse himself despite his blatant conflicts. Sedwick's sentence was therefore colored and intended to provide cover and deflect criticism of himself. It was driven by politics, not what was right or wrong, moral or ethical. The man was caught failing to acknowledge his conflicts during the trial and refusing to step down and hand the case to another judge, an impeachable offense for not following the law. Instead, he chose to retain authority over me. Holding him accountable scared and caused him to scramble in deciding how best to protect his hide. His spur of the moment decision to go light with my sentencing was a selfish cop-out. Normally, a defendant would be grateful under such circumstances. But it was all about him, not me.
When I returned home after the sentencing drama to deal with my car breakdown, I was lucky to discover friends drove by later that morning and noticed it along the highway and got it running. One of them stepped out to look around and spied an envelope with a note on the front seat addressed to my parents. It dawned on him it might be a suicide note. Horrified, he walked into the surrounding woods expecting to find my body, convinced I couldn't handle the pressure and decided to end it. He later told me he said out loud, "That SOB shot himself."
Fortunately, the thought never crossed my mind and the note was only a personal, unrelated message. To my friend's great relief, I was alive and well. But it sure gave him a scare. Furthermore, he informed me that an Anchorage radio talk show host lambasted me for supposedly "staging" the entire breakdown and hitchhiking episode to elicit sympathy from the judge, a preposterous claim. So he called in to set the record straight on the air.
I later learned my vehicle simply ran out of gas instead of breaking down, despite putting in a half tank hours prior. Since it was in fine working order, someone likely siphoned fuel from the car the night before in an act of sabotage, knowing I was about to make my fateful appearance in court. No shortage of nut cases in this world!
The day was finally over. Eventful, strange. I even found a moment to laugh at it all. But it was now time to mentally prepare myself for the next awful chapter in my life: Reporting to prison.
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. He can be reached on Facebook. His blog is available at www.simplesite.com/vickohring.
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.