OPINION: Remembering Bill Allen, an Alaska antihero some would rather forget

Bill Allen

Bill Allen, who died June 29 in Colorado at age 85, was not a man to emulate but nevertheless a man to remember. Few Alaskans have started with so little and have gone so far. When the tall, rangy oil man in cowboy boots walked into the Capitol 30 years ago, the building shook.

Only the touring school children did not recognize him. They had come to learn history. Bill Allen was making history — and not the history that appears on plaques teachers read to tykes.

“Mike, he’s just an old welder.” So Allen’s former lobbyist Ed Dankworth characterized him to me after the two had split up over what Dankworth called “differences.”

Bill Allen learned the welding trade — and entered the oil patch — as a poor New Mexico boy in the 1950s. He was no more than a gangly welder when he arrived in Alaska some years later. But he had something in his head workers beading steel for wages rarely have — the ambition to own a company and the relentless drive to fulfill his ambition.

The English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald said, “Hard work and opportunism are the secret of biological success.” Bill Allen did not need the tutoring of a writer to recognize this.

The transition from worker to owner took years, but eventually, he became the head man of VECO, an oilfield service company that contracted throughout the state, but particularly on the North Slope after the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the mid-1970s. Allen delivered the men and machinery to keep oil flowing.

The contracts built a company with hundreds of employees and millions of dollars pouring into the VECO building in midtown Anchorage. The 1989 Prince William Sound oil spill was an environmental, economic and political disaster for the companies, but the cleanup was a bonanza for VECO. Allen became a “spillionaire,” in the argot of the time.

Years later, after an FBI investigation of bribery transformed the VECO “spillionaire” into a criminal defendant, Allen explained that he only became involved in politics as a necessity. The intense competition for service contracts meant he had to find a way to make himself indispensable to “the big boys,” the major oil companies.

He did this with the mother’s milk of politics — campaign contributions. And he wasn’t Mother Theresa.

Through campaign contributions, he built a roster of politicians who would give the “big boys” what they wanted, reducing oil taxes topping their list.

For Bill Allen, politics was transactional. He handed the politicians money, and legislators delivered him their votes. Governors gave him unlimited access — his town car was frequently parked outside the governor’s mansion — and their “understanding,” a euphemism that could change meanings according to the circumstances. Sometimes understanding was literally all they could provide given political reality. Republicans were the primary beneficiaries — Allen became a major figure in the Republican party — but a few Democrats enjoyed his largesse, too.

In time, he concluded lobbyists were a waste of money. He could do the work himself.

This was one of the “differences” he had with Ed Dankworth. Another was the way Allen talked about legislators, sometimes in the legislative halls.

Allen would ask Dankworth, “Didn’t we pay for him?” after a lawmaker walked by. Dankworth would reply “Bill, we don’t talk that way around here.” Bill would go on, “All that money?” And Ed tried again, “Bill, we don’t talk that way around here.”

To further his political presence, Allen bought the failing Anchorage Times in 1989. It was a bad idea. Allen could hire people who knew newspapers, and sometimes did, but he was up against the much better positioned and better-run Anchorage Daily News (which I worked for then). In 1992, the Times closed, after reportedly losing $10 million.

I often saw Allen in the Juneau halls when he was lobbying. Most of the time, he looked uncomfortable. He learned the game (and how to break the rules), but he always was the hulking old welder — restless, driven, demanding — who shuttled between private meetings with lawmakers. The legislative pace, slower than an old mule on a blistering New Mexico afternoon, frustrated a man of action.

Bill Allen had no concept of limits, and without anyone to restrain him, he and a number of legislators — and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens — came under FBI investigation. Convictions followed. In federal court, Allen, who had suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident, looked like a broken old man. He often had difficulty following the proceedings, squinting miserably at the judge.

I once asked John Cowdery, a state senator convicted of corruption, what made Bill Allen happy. Cowdery, a former contractor himself, said “Oh, when we would sit around talking about blade work, making a nice smooth cut with a Cat on a road or someplace. We both liked this.”

Blade work was not enough to satisfy Bill Allen, and when the FBI was through with him, he was imprisoned and VECO had been sold.

Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

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Michael Carey

Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.