Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Roundup: Bruce Weyhrauch's Oral Argument; Brenda Morris's Departure from D.C.; and the Dates for My Class


1. The Anchorage Daily News reports that the oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of ex-State Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch (R.-Juneau) has been scheduled for December 8. Recall that this is a pre-trial appeal, as the trial of this former lawmaker was derailed by this appeal over a point of law that deserves further comment by me. Recall also that although I know a number of the defendants in the Alaska public corruption cases and a number of the lawyers involved, I have known Bruce Weyhrauch better over the years than I have known any of the other defendants.

2. The Website has reported that Brenda Morris, who served as first chair in the collapsed prosecution of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska), has now left Washington and her position as Principal Deputy Chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. A source told the publication that the decision for Morris to exit her supervisory role was a mutual one between the Department of Justice and Morris, who is the subject of two investigations concerning the prosecution’s disclosure of evidence to the defense in the Ted Stevens trial. A person familiar with the situation also told the publication that Morris moved to Georgia for personal reasons. The veteran prosecutor remains a trial attorney with the Public Integrity Section while she works out of an Atlanta office of the Department of Justice, and the position of Principal Deputy Chief for that section is for now unfilled.

3. My class on Alaska public corruption that starts next week runs on Wednesday afternoons from October 7 through November 25. You can get details through the Opportunities for Lifelong Education OLE) program at on the Internet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Notice of TV Appearance, Plus a Primer on the Age of Consent


I was on television at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. this evening, speaking to KTVA Channel 11 in Anchorage about the allegations in ex-State Rep. Pete Kott's new pleading regarding the federal government's relationship with Bill Allen in terms of the long-time VECO CEO's alleged sexual offenses with underage girls. I can't find any video on the station's Website, but you can read a print version of reporter Matt Felling's story at on the Internet.

Note that the story references a crime occurring when underage girls are transported across state lines, and that act is criminal under the Mann Act in federal law if such transportation is for the purposes of prostitution. Unlike Alaska state law--which with some exceptions establishes 16 as the age of consent--this provision of the Mann Act defines minors as those who are under 18. You can find the relevant provision of the Mann Act at 18 USC Sec. 2423(a); the Alaska statutes on sexual abuse of minors are set out at AS 11.41.434 through 11.41.440.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I'll Be Teaching a Class on This Subject

Here follows a learning opportunity for those who have some time free on Wednesday afternoons this fall. I’ll be teaching a class with the following description:
The Slippery Slope
Alaska's Political Corruption Scandals
Teacher: Cliff Groh
How did the Last Frontier go from the heady idealism of the early days of statehood to the seamy FBI tapes of legislators and powerbrokers in Suite 604? This course explores what happened and why by looking at the bribers, the bribe-takers, and the environment in which the bribes occurred. The class also looks at the rise in the political power of long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen, the methods of the federal investigators, and the problems that have plagued some of the prosecutions. It concludes with a look at the future course of the federal probe and a discussion of the lessons that Alaskans could learn from these scandals.
Cliff Groh is an attorney and writer in Anchorage. He formerly served as a prosecutor, journalist, legislative aide, and municipal attorney. The lifelong Alaskan also served as Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Revenue during the Cowper administration from 1987 through 1990. He is writing a book on the Alaska public corruption scandals, and he maintains a blog at on the Internet.
I’m teaching the class through the Opportunities for Lifelong Education program (OLE for short). If you’re interested, you can become a member for a year at a cost of $150 and take this class as well as a variety of others. You can get details at on the Internet.


For those who were unable to attend the class or who aren't in the Anchorage area, but are still interested in Opportunities for Lifelong Education, accredited classes online are becoming more popular and affordable.  Check them out and find a subject that appeals to you.

If Bill Allen Is the Source of All Evil, Why Is It Only Now that His Flaws Are Obvious?


It seems like that there’s a long line of people who now want to call Bill Allen a dangerous sleazeball.

Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens called the long-time VECO CEO a liar at the Senator’s trial last fall, and Stevens’s lawyers painted the tycoon as both brain-addled and determined to shade his testimony to protect his family from prosecution and his fortune from forfeiture. Former Alaska Speaker of the House Pete Kott’s new lawyer cites evidence that Allen repeatedly had sex with underage girls, sometimes bringing them across state lines for purposes of prostitution. And as waves of embarrassing revelations about government misconduct increasingly wash over the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption, it seems possible that federal officials will point the finger at Allen and his duplicity as the reason prosecution cases have gone awry.

But why is only now that these people who used to be so close to Bill Allen now denounce him as a devil? Why is it that the scales are only now falling from their eyes so that the once-influential magnate stands as the worst person in the world?

Ted Stevens went repeatedly on “Boot Camp” vacations with Allen, and the last of those just-the-two-of-them get-togethers was five years after Allen suffered his brain injury in a motorcycle accident in 2001 . One of Stevens’s adult daughters testified in her father’s own defense that she found “creepy” the way Allen used the Senator’s home in Girdwood. FBI tapes captured how Kott spent many hours with Allen drinking and saying crude and outrageous things in the famous “Animal House” of Suite 604 in Juneau’s Baranof Hotel. Kott actually lived at Allen’s house for a while, and seemed to consider the multimillionaire businessman as a surrogate father. The Alaska Republican Party relied on Allen to be the party’s fund-raising powerhouse, and even got out of his way to let the VECO chieftain be the man to see in financing GOP campaigns on the Last Frontier. And federal prosecutors and investigators spent many hundreds of hours with Allen over a period of more than two years before the collapse of the Ted Stevens case over prosecutorial misconduct caused them to start to edge away from their key witness.

A lot of people who now want to distance themselves from Bill Allen had plenty of opportunities over the years to see up close how bad he was—a man who cut corners as a matter of course, a man whose well-documented active and varied sex life reportedly crossed the line into the illegal over and over.

There are a lot of people in Alaska and Washington, D.C. who need to ask themselves “How did Bill Allen get to be so popular with so many of the powerful for so long? And who let him get that way?”

More Lessons and Nuggets from Pete Kott's Motion to Dismiss


My hike yesterday up a mountain in Pete Kott’s legislative district delayed this posting but hopefully improved its quality. As announced last Friday, the new attorney for that convicted, imprisoned, but at least temporarily released former Republican State Representative from Eagle River has filed a motion to get his indictment dismissed and thereby end his case.

The pleading is a well-prepared catalogue of alleged discovery violations by the prosecutors in the federal public corruption trial of the former Speaker of the Alaska State House that ended in September of 2007 with guilty verdicts on three counts. Two key witnesses against Kott at the trial were long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen and his political lieutenant, VECO Vice President Rick Smith.

The filing is primarily based on more than 4,000 pages of documents that the Department of Justice gave access to the defense after the trial. You can read the filing at on the Internet.

Here are my additional thoughts on that pleading:

1. Unless the Department of Justice can somehow rebut the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the Kott trial, the government’s case is in big trouble.

Recall that in our system of justice prosecutors are held to special legal and ethical obligations that don’t apply to other lawyers. One of those obligations is the responsibility to turn over certain evidence to the defense before trial. Kott’s filing lays out a number of instances where documents provided to the defense post-trial show statements by witnesses that appear to cast doubt on—or even contradict—evidence and arguments presented at trial by the prosecution. One example offered in the pleading involves a payment by Allen of $5,000 to Kott that helped the former legislator buy a truck. While the government ridiculed at trial Kott’s assertion that the $5,000 payment was a loan from Allen and not a bribe, the prosecution never turned over before the trial a federal investigator’s report from an interview of Allen in which Allen allegedly said that the oil-services tycoon considered that payment a loan.

It will be very interesting to see how the government’s new lawyers address these allegations. As is common with pleadings of 58 pages (59 if you count the signature page), some of the allegations are stronger than others. (Kott’s attorney overplays, for example, the importance of allegedly suppressed evidence that the former 14-year legislator would have voted on oil taxes the way Allen wanted even in the absence of bribes, because legislators can be helpful to people interested in legislative outcomes in ways beyond their vote. Examples include intelligence-gathering and lobbying of other legislators.) Even given a little overreaching by the defense, the oft-stated axiom that prosecutors are supposed to turn square corners means that the Department of Justice attorneys will be sweating to come up with good responses as to why so many documents that look like they should have been turned over were not provided before the trial.

Just because there appear to have been some discovery violations, however, does not automatically mean that U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick will dismiss the indictment and end the case against Kott. He may order a retrial—the more common remedy for discovery violations—and he may even allow the defense an opportunity to get more discovery. If the court doesn’t dismiss the case, the defense’s alternative request is for Judge Sedwick to order additional discovery, including depositions of some of the government’s witnesses. This mess is likely to grow.

It must be said that those faced with a particular mess include Nicholas Marsh, a trial attorney from the Washington, D.C.-based Public Integrity Section who served as the Department of Justice’s go-to guy in Alaska in the federal “POLAR PEN” probe into public corruption on the Last Frontier. In a bit caught by Rich Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News, the pleading shows that the investigation has been running since July of 2003, and Marsh served as a prosecutor in three of the trials produced by that probe. Marsh was on the in-court prosecution team against Kott as well against ex-State Rep. Tom Anderson (R.-Anchorage) and ex-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska). Along with five other government attorneys, Marsh is the subject of two investigations into discovery violations in the collapsed prosecution of Ted Stevens. Marsh’s attorneys cannot be happy with the disclosure of Marsh’s e-mail to his supervisors that suggests what some will say represents insufficient attention to Marsh’s discovery obligations during witness coaching sessions with Allen. Memo to everybody: Even though some people tend to treat e-mail as the equivalent of a telephone conversation that disappears into the ether, electronic mail is instead a permanent record that lives forever.

2. Witnesses in criminal trials often have warts, but Bill Allen's warts are uglier than most.

The dominant feeling of jurors in criminal trials often is a sense of shock that there could be people who really lived the way the lay witnesses in criminal cases often do. As I told one friend, those witnesses frequently do not resemble the folks at his table at Rotary meetings. One extreme example came when I was a prosecutor: I had one witness in a sexual abuse of a minor case who some years previously had been drinking with two men in a house when one man shot the other to death. She just kept drinking with the killer—in the same room with the dead man’s body—for hours until the authorities showed up.

So as a former prosecutor of sex-crime cases I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff, and I’m also used to witnesses with dents and scratches on them.

Having said all that, the new Motion to Dismiss filed by ex-State Rep. Pete Kott’s new attorney alleges that the federal government apparently sat on—and even discouraged the Anchorage Police Department from pursuing—evidence of some unusually sordid crimes committed by Bill Allen. The allegations are gross—maybe even beyond gross. They include allegations that while in his 60s, the oil-services magnate had sex with as many as five underage girls. He allegedly even went to the mother of a 15-year-old girl and asked if he could date her daughter; the mother allegedly agreed and Allen supposedly then began taking care of the mother financially on a long-term basis.

Two points about these allegations, all of which Allen apparently denies. The first is that the charges make him look so evil and depraved that even their airing will tend to hurt him in the eyes of future judges and jurors. This is not good news for a man facing sentencing next month before the same judge who is reading all these allegations in Kott’s new pleading.

The other point is a question that is probably in the minds of a number of defense attorneys whose clients face prosecution heavily based on Bill Allen’s testimony: When did the federal government first talk about underage sex with Bill Allen, and who brought up the subject?

3. This story started out looking like it was all-American and particularly all-Alaskan, but now it has elements of a Russian novel as well as multiple Greek tragedies.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pete Kott's New Lawyer Throws a Bunch of Legal Dirt and Leaves a Big Mess


Pete Kott’s motion to dismiss based on previously undisclosed information was filed yesterday, and it is a doozy.

Other time commitments will keep me from doing a full analysis today of this 58-page pleading jam-packed with juicy allegations, so check back this weekend to get more. For now, you should know these bullet points:

1. The stuff the federal government was sitting on looks to be about as seamy as many speculated after the Department of Justice threw in the towel in the Ted Stevens case. Kott’s motion claims that the feds knew that long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen was extremely concerned about being prosecuted for having sex with underage girls. The filing contends that the 72-year-old former tycoon had good reason to be concerned about his criminal exposure, given evidence that he had sex with multiple underage girls as young as 14, at least one of whom he allegedly transported across state lines for purposes of prostitution. There are salacious allegations galore (“CHILD VICTIM 3 was part of a threesome with Allen and CHILD VICTIM 2 at age 16.”)

Setting aside the sheer cringe factor of some of the acts described, the legal relevance of this material comes from the argument that the feds should have disclosed to the defense before trial the evidence of Allen’s alleged crimes to the defense--as well as Allen’s attempts to cover them up--so that the defense could argue to the jury that Allen was shading his testimony against Kott to try to avoid prosecution for sex crimes.

2. This is less tabloidy, but more important legally: Some of the alleged acts of some of the prosecutors involved make them look very bad, at least at first blush. Particularly problematic are allegations that prosecutors suppressed evidence that cast doubt on some of their key contentions at trial.

3. Three good journalists at the Alaska Dispatch were the first to publish a story on this pleading, and they deserve congratulations by name. Their article can be found at on the Internet. Jill Burke, Tony Hopfinger, and Amanda Coyne have all done fine work previously in covering the “POLAR PEN” federal investigation into Alaska public corruption. Hopfinger is so close to the story--particularly the hooker angle--that he is even mentioned in Kott’s motion to dismiss as affecting the way the FBI handled Allen. The motion contends that FBI Special Agent Mary Beth Kepner would pass on to Allen information about Hopfinger’s upcoming coverage of Allen’s alleged sexual involvement with minors as a way to prepare the VECO chieftain.

4. Kott’s attorney—Sheryl Gordon McCloud of Seattle—did a bang-up job on this motion, and this filing makes a sticky situation even stickier for the Department of Justice.

More to come.

Read More and Enjoy


Just because I wrote more than 2,000 words on what happened at the sentencing of ex-State Rep. Beverly Masek for taking bribes doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read other coverage of that event. In fact, I’ll make it easy for you.

Amanda Coyne has nice Iditarod-related bits in her article at the Alaska Dispatch. Coyne also got an interview with a man who was an old friend of both the former state legislator and her ex-husband Jan Masek, who emerged as something of a villain during his former wife’s sentencing yesterday. You can find Coyne’s story at on the Internet.

Rich Mauer has the straight news coverage of the sentencing at the Anchorage Daily News at on the Internet, and it features quotes he scored from Jan Masek, now living in Panama. Not surprisingly, Jan Masek did not admit to being a monster who drove his ex-wife into alcoholism and bribe-taking. "All my life I never put (a) hand on Bev, even when she got drunk," Jan Masek said in an e-mail to Mauer. "I think this is (a) great insult….She start drinking in Juneau, with nice Republican rednecks."

But if you read only one thing about Beverly Masek’s sentencing in addition to my own blogging, it should be Julia O’Malley’s column in the Anchorage Daily News. It’s called “Masek excuses sound hollow, sentence disappoints,” and you can find it at on the Internet. The piece addresses the questions of accountability and fairness I raised in my post last night, and does so with a literary flourish (the defense “painted a picture of her that seemed fragile, like a besotted Victorian heroine wandering the halls of the capitol.”)

All this media traffic cop stuff reminds me of a point I’ve frequently wanted to make. Anybody should reads this blog should subscribe to at least one daily newspaper. If you’re going to stay informed over the long run, you can’t always expect to rely on idiosyncratic bloggers like me who write for free.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Beverly Masek Catches a Break at Her Sentencing


Much to your blogger’s surprise, Beverly Masek only got six months in prison for taking bribes while a state legislator.

Criminal sentencing guidelines called for the former five-term Alaska State Representative to get sent away for 18-24 months, but U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline sliced a year off that standard minimum sentence at the end of a hearing that sometimes sounded like a locker room pep talk.

Along with the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility and “community support,” Judge Beistline cited the six years that had passed between Masek’s acceptance of bribes and her sentencing for that crime as a reason to go relatively easy on the ex-lawmaker.

The Delay Between Crime and Punishment Troubles the Judge

Given that this is 2009, the court characterized Masek’s crimes in 2003 as “distant conduct.” He said that he was troubled by the delay, comparing the situation to his own father’s reluctance to punish him at the end of the day for misbehavior that the young Ralph Beistline committed first thing in the morning.

The lighter sentence imposed on Masek this morning can only be taken as a dig at the Department of Justice for the pace of its “POLAR PEN” probe into Alaska public corruption. That investigation started no later than April of 2004, and thus next month will be at least five and a half years old.

Given what Judge Beistline said and did at the sentencing regarding the gap between crime and punishment, it’s worth taking a brief look at how fast the feds could have moved against Masek versus how fast they did move. The Justice Department presumably could not have charged Masek until after long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen told the FBI he had bribed her, and Allen would not revealed that until after the feds started debriefing him after they flipped him on August 31, 2006.

It’s not clear when Allen gave up his bribery of Masek—he of course had a lot of crimes to confess—but it seems likely that it would have been in the first nine months after the oil-services and construction magnate started to talk to the feds. This very generous estimate factors in Bill Allen’s concern about getting immunity for his son Mark, whom media accounts have suggested was the person who delivered for his father the first of the cash bribes Masek took. Bill Allen’s plea agreement is dated May 2, 2007, and it specifically provides for immunity for Mark Allen.

After getting from Bill Allen the story of his bribes to Masek, she was easy to catch: The very opposite of a criminal mastermind, the Republican lawmaker from Willow immediately deposited one of her cash bribes into her bank account.

Based on the above analysis, it seems likely that the Department of Justice could have confronted Beverly Masek no later than June of 2007 and charged her no later than two months later. Instead, the feds did not contact her until May of 2008 and did not charge her until March of 2009, when they had a plea agreement with her in hand. (This sentencing has clarified that Masek made an agreement with the feds that she would waive her rights under the statute of limitations to claim that the government had not charged her on a timely basis, thus eliminating any legal argument that prosecution was barred on those grounds.)

All this suggests that if the feds had pushed as hard as possible on the Masek case, it could have shaved something like a year—or maybe up to two years—off the delay between offense and sentencing.

What the Witnesses and the Lawyers Said

Arguing for a treatment-focused sentence, defense attorney Rich Curtner called four providers of mental health services to testify at the hearing. Dr. Aron Wolf talked about his diagnosis of Masek as having the illnesses of Major Depression and Alcohol Dependence as well as a personality type of Passive-Dependent. (Dr. Wolf has been a psychiatrist in Alaska since 1967, but it’s a safe bet that he has no business card with the line “Shrinking the Great Land for More than Four Decades.” Watching the defense witnesses today also reminded me that just like those working in downtown D.C. generally have sharper haircuts than your average Alaskan, it’s also likely that your average person in the counseling business spends less on hair care than the median trial attorney.)

Like the other three defense witnesses, Dr. Wolf also stressed the availability of alcohol treatment on the Last Frontier, including programs that would show “cultural sensitivity” to Alaska Natives such as Masek.

Lead prosecutor Kendall Day had little to say, conducting a brief cross-examination of Dr. Wolf and giving a short argument for a prison sentence of 18-24 months.

A young man in a gray suit, the D.C.-based Day said that while Masek had an alcohol problem, so do many criminal defendants who have to go prison every day. He emphasized that Masek knew what she was doing when she took the two bribes, which totaled at least $4,000.

The brevity of the prosecutor’s presentation might have stemmed in part from his knowledge that the writer of the court-ordered pre-sentence report had recommended a sentence of 21 months, hitting the midpoint of the range of 18 to 24 months set out in the federal criminal sentencing guidelines for this offense.

The white-bearded Curtner took his time, by contrast, to promote his position that his client should get no jail time and a sentence focused on alcohol rehabilitation and therapy. He argued that the mitigating circumstances surrounding Masek’s offense, her need for treatment, her acceptance of responsibility, and the no-prison sentence Judge Beistline gave to ex-State Sen. John Cowdery (R.-Anchorage) for the same crime of bribery-related conspiracy combined to point to probation.

“It’s a long history to get here,” Curtner said of his client, who turns 46 next week. To explain how the crimes occurred, Alaska’s chief Federal Public Defender cited the culture of corruption that had grown around the legislature in recent years as well as his client’s weak personality and problems with depression and alcohol. Curtner argued that Masek’s obviously stupid action in taking one of her cash bribes immediately to the bank showed a lack of sophistication that made her less culpable.

The Defendant’s Allocution and the Judge’s Dialogue with Her

Masek dabbed repeatedly at her eyes with tissue during her lawyer’s sentencing argument, and she was openly crying when the time came to give her own statement to the court. After some false starts, she said that the prosecution had left her hurt, embarrassed, and humiliated. Speaking to a courtroom that included a number of people who looked like casual Bush Alaskans from her home Alaska Native village of Anvik, Masek said that “I know I’ve let a lot of people down.”

The four-time finisher of the famed Iditarod Sled Dog Race compared her situation to an accident on the trail: “I feel like I’ve been operating on a broken sled runner.” Faced with that problem of damaged equipment while racing, “I fixed it and moved on.”

When Masek finished, Judge Beistline took over. I’ve been to many hundreds of sentencings in my legal career, and this may have been the most unusual.

In delivering his comments, the judge was alternately stern, condemning, encouraging, and inspirational.

Noting that the defendant had been elected and taken the oath of office five times, he said “You violated that oath….You broke the law.”

Taking much of the prosecution’s view of the case, Judge Beistline told Masek that she had taken “illegal money” on two occasions and had sought out even more. Dismissing any “It’s just the booze” argument as an excuse, the judge said that the legislator was sober at the moment she solicited the bribes.

Although he didn’t directly attack her “broken sled runner” analogy, it was clear that the judge saw what happened as more like Masek choosing to beat her dogs rather than just another unfortunate accident on the trail.

The judge also said that the defense's suggestions that Masek’s disadvantaged upbringing or the criminality of some fellow lawmakers should lighten her sentence did not cut any ice with him. Drawing on his background in his hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska, Judge Beistline said that he grew up with many people who started out in humble circumstances and went on to do great things in life.

The court took pains to distinguish ex-Sen. Cowdery’s case from Masek’s, opining that the facts that Cowdery didn’t get any cash for himself and engaged in less obviously illegal conduct than Masek justified the light sentence the judge imposed on Cowdery.

Noting that mental health professionals described her as having “minimal functionality” during at least some substantial periods of her 10-year legislative career, the judge suggested that it was scary that someone so weak and so out of control was in a position of public trust and power.

“You’re hardly a role model, at least in the last decade,” Judge Beistline observed. Despite the iconic status with some Alaskans—particularly young people and Natives—that the Iditarod racer and lawmaker may have enjoyed at one point, the judge said that in recent years Masek had been more of an example of how not to act.

After the tough talk, though, the judge announced that he was going to pass up the sentence of 18 to 24 months he was fully justified in imposing under the law in favor of sending Masek to prison for six months. This post has already discussed the factor of delayed justice that the court seemed to rely on most in giving Masek a sentence that the judge said showed “considerable compassion.”

Setting aside the logic of the reduction, what was most interesting was the judge’s demeanor. Some judges hand down sentences as if they were senior distinguished professors forced to announce the grades for some unusually dim and lazy students; others go into full god-like mode. Judge Beistline sentenced Masek like he was a veteran high school basketball coach in a small town kicking a young player off the team for multiple infractions of the rules. It’s not the end of world, kid: Keep your nose clean and work hard, and you can get back on the squad next year.

The judge asked the former legislator if she could comply with the sentence, and she said she could. He asked her if she would comply, and she said that she would.

“We want you to finish this process employable and mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy,” Judge Beistline told Masek. “You do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it, and I guarantee that your life will get better.”

The Meaning of the Sentence

This sentence is significantly lighter than I thought it would be. (Recall that your humble blogger speculated that the judge would give Masek “well over a year” in prison—this just shows the wisdom of the old saying that predictions are risky, particularly when they’re about the future.)

No matter how good her lawyer feels tonight—and Rich Curtner should feel good—this sentence does not exactly give Masek a walk in the park. The former 10-year legislator has got to go to prison for six months, and that prison will be far from her family and friends in Alaska. Prison is still prison, even if it’s a minimum-security facility like the one Masek will be in. And she will be on supervised release for three years after her release, which also will not be fun. While on probation, she could be ordered to go to residential alcohol treatment for up to six months as long as the program was culturally sensitive. Even when not in a residential program, she could be drug-tested up to 12 times a month while on probation. The judge made a special point to tell her that as a felon she can’t own firearms, and he also told her that she should not plan to drink any more alcohol the rest of her life.

While on probation, the defendant could also try to recapture that role model status she has lost. Judge Beistline told Masek that “You could be a mouthpiece for your community and your culture.” He specifically suggested that she could speak to audiences about the evils of alcohol and—in a comment that led to grumbling outside the courtroom about a double standard for female defendants—the possibilities that in certain circumstances a woman can be taken advantage of.

Some observers think that a sentence of six months in prison is pretty light for a state legislator who takes two cash bribes. Others wonder if she benefitted at the sentencing from being a Native woman. Under all the circumstances, what do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beverly Masek: Icon, Crook, or Cipher?


The judge could have a tough time figuring out who he’s sentencing tomorrow morning in the case of U.S. v. Beverly Masek.

Is the defendant the person the voters knew, the tough musher and charismatic candidate who won five terms in the Alaska State Legislature?

Or is she the greedy crook the prosecutors want the judge to see, the criminal who sold her public office for cash bribes?

Or is Beverly Masek the sad figure painted by her lawyer, the drunk and depressed pauper who—despite serving for years as one of Alaska’s 60 legislators—had no power over anything around her?

The Icon the Voters Knew

Ever since she blitzed to victory in 1994, Bev Masek the Icon has been well-known to voters in her rural-tilting district north of Anchorage. She was the Native woman from the small village of Anvik who four times finished the Iditarod—“the Last Great Race,” the marathon dog-sled competition that runs each year across more than 1,000 miles of the Lost Frontier. Not content with that record, she also won the “Mountain Woman Contest” in Talkeetna.

Running as a 31-year-old first-time candidate, the Willow Republican won her first term in 1994. Rep. Masek crusaded against drug use by Native youth, and even served as a spokesperson for a hospital well-known for its treatment of patients with psychiatric and substance abuse problems. She was re-elected four times before being defeated in 2004 in the Republican primary. Her loss came in the wake of ethics complaints from a legislative staff member concerning her financial improprieties, although that misconduct did not involve the crime for which she will be sentenced tomorrow.

The Crook the Prosecutors Portray

The defendant pleaded guilty to a bad set of facts, so the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum gets to be short and punchy. In her ninth year as an elected Alaska State Representative, the defendant approached long-time VECO CEO Bill Allen in April of 2003 to discuss her financial difficulties. Masek then “accepted a cash payment of several thousand dollars from a relative of Allen’s” in an Anchorage restaurant, “knowing that there were matters pending before the Alaska State Legislature that were important to Allen and VECO’s business interests.”

Less than a month after taking this first cash payment, Rep. Masek introduced a bill that would substantially raise taxes on Alaska’s major oil producers, better known to Bill Allen as the outfits that paid most of VECO’s bills. Bill Allen met with the lawmaker the next day and persuaded her to withdraw that legislation. The day after that, Bill Allen gave Rep. Masek another $2,000 in cash, “which the defendant accepted knowing that it was given, in part, because of her agreement to withdraw the bill.”

And Masek didn’t stop there. Within months of the second cash payment, she again asked Bill Allen for money, asked VECO Vice President Rick Smith for consulting work with VECO, and told her legislative aide to meet with Smith to seek additional money from VECO.

Now that Masek is being sentenced based on her plea of guilty to the crime of conspiracy to commit bribery, the prosecution wants U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to send Masek to prison for a significant period. “[A] sentence [of 18-24 months of incarceration] is needed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, provide just punishment, and afford adequate deterrence.”

The government lawyers also point to Masek’s former position as “a high-ranking elected public official for the State of Alaska,” and assert that “crimes such as the defendant’s have eroded the public’s faith in the Alaska State Legislature and their elected leaders.”

The Cipher Her Lawyer Paints

There’s no bad person here, Masek’s lawyer says: His client is a remorseful victim who needs rehabilitation above all. She was vulnerable because of the Four Ds: Divorce, Depression, Deprivation, and Drunkenness. Although the word does not seem to appear in the 31 pages Federal Public Defender Rich Curtner filed on Masek’s behalf, the sentiment that he really wants to engender is pity.

She got a bad husband and then fell in with a bad crowd in and around the Legislature, say various letter-writers to the court. Despite being a lawmaker for 10 years, Masek seems to have always lacked the capacity to do the job. She then fell so much farther that she became almost a non-entity in the Capitol and even in her own life. Her former lawyer writes that Masek “was largely controlled by other people.” A
legislative employee who observed the Willow Republican saw her as “very heavily controlled during her tenure in office,” adding that Masek’s legislative staff “was picked to further an agenda I don’t know if she agreed with or supported.”

Who were these master manipulators who called the shots? Her lawyer doesn’t say directly, but the package of pleadings he filed points the finger at three people whom he wants the judge to think were running—and ruining—Masek’s life: her lousy (now former) husband, her former legislative mentor Rep. Ramona Barnes (R.-Anchorage), and Bill Allen. (Note that Masek’s former husband is apparently now living in Latin America, Barnes is dead, and Allen (whom one of Masek’s friends calls “‘the devil of the decade’”) is scheduled to be sentenced next month to a much longer prison sentence than Masek conceivably faces.)

Plagued by depression and alcohol abuse caused by her divorce and her related financial hardship, Masek was a personal wreck by the time she committed the crime she is being sentenced for. Her defense attorney quotes her as telling her psychiatrist that frequently during the 2003 legislative session she “‘did not really know what was happening around her.’”

In addition to arguing that her crime was situational and will not recur, Masek’s lawyer is asking the judge to go easy on her because going to prison will harm her recovery from alcoholism and major depression and because another state legislator sentenced in this federal probe—ex-Sen. John Cowdery—got off with home detention.

The defense’s sentencing memorandum says that “It would be a tragic footnote in the Alaska corruption scandal that amidst the storm of corruption in Alaska’s legislature, at this point the one person who is serving time in a federal prison is a Native Alaskan woman who was suffering from depression and alcoholism, who accepted four
thousand dollars from Bill Allen.”

Note that this statement is subject to two factual objections, one major and one more minor. As Rich Mauer pointed out in the Anchorage Daily News, former State Rep. Tom Anderson would certainly take exception from his cell to the proposition that putting Masek in prison would make her the only person incarcerated as a result of the federal investigation. And the prosecution seems to suggest that the combined bribes to Masek totaled at least $4,000, and were not necessarily only that amount.

Based on all the factors listed above, Masek’s attorney seeks a sentence of three years of probation that would focus on rehabilitation, which might include six months of residential treatment and/or home confinement.

What Judge Beistline Is Likely to Do

All indications are that the prosecutors are likely to walk out of the courtroom happier than the defense counsel and the defendant. Based on his previous in-court statements about the case and his record in sentencing, Judge Beistline is likely to give the government much of what it wants tomorrow morning, which means that Beverly Masek will be going to prison for well over a year.

Judge Beistline has heard a lot of sad stories as a judge that have certainly included claims of alcoholism, poverty, and divorce-fueled depression, so those arguments are unlikely to make him go easy in a case of a public official who has admitted repeatedly violating the public trust.

The court will probably dismiss the defense’s “Bill Allen lured me in” contention by noting that ex-Rep. Masek seemed to pursue—or even extort—Allen to get the second cash payment by introducing a bill as almost a bargaining chip.

To the claims that sending Masek to prison would harm her rehabilitation, the judge will cite the need to hammer her to deter other legislators from taking bribes in the future. To put it another way, the court will see it as more important to make an example of Masek that it is to maximize the chances that her life will be as good as possible from now on.

Judge Beistline is likely to reject the defense claim that the fact that ex-Sen. Cowdery escaped prison means that Masek should get the same treatment. The court will probably point to the facts that she took cash, while Cowdery got no money personally. In addition, the court will likely see Cowdery as far sicker than her.

Finally, Masek getting caught drunk twice while on conditions of release in this case will be seen as cutting against her attorney’s claim that she has a strong desire to kick her alcohol problem.

We’ll know tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Judge Slams Beverly Masek for Getting Drunk and Hints that Significant Time in Prison Awaits Her for Her Bribe-Taking


When you’re facing sentencing for a felony, don’t get drunk twice when your conditions of release only allow moderate use of alcohol.

That’s not legal advice—just common sense. (Even though this blogger is an attorney, nothing at this Website should be considered legal advice: There’s only reporting, analysis, and commentary here.)

Former State Rep. Beverly Masek (R.-Willow) is facing sentencing for taking cash bribes of at least $4,000 from officials of the now defunct oil-services company VECO, including its long-time CEO Bill Allen. She got caught twice being drunk between the time she pleaded guilty and received her sentence, and U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline came down on her hard for what he called her “messing up.”

As reported by Richard Mauer in the Anchorage Daily News, the judge gave Masek a delay in her sentencing, part of what her lawyer asked for at the hearing. But the delay was only a week, and the court appearance Thursday morning was more interesting in what the judge also gave the ex-lawmaker.

Judge Beistline imposed a stricter regime during the remaining two weeks before Masek’s sentencing and sent her a clear signal that the sentencing will result in significant prison time, not the stint in a treatment facility she seeks in lieu of incarceration. (This account of what happened at the hearing is based heavily on Mauer’s article, as your blogger did not attend that court appearance.)

The judge ordered the former legislator to stop drinking entirely and to live with her parents in Anchorage until the new sentencing date of September 24. He also gave federal monitoring authorities the powers to test her for alcohol daily and put her in jail immediately if she either tested positive or refused to give a sample.

The plain-speaking judge also threw cold water on the hope expressed by Masek’s lawyer that the sentence she gets will focus on her participating in the Southcentral Foundation’s “Circle of Recovery” program for Alaska Natives.

“Don’t think you’re not going to jail,” Judge Beistline announced in court to Masek. “You’ve got to pay the price for your crime.”

Department of Justice attorneys have stated that the pre-sentence report prepared by a federal probation officer recommends a sentence of 21 months for the ex-lawmaker, and those federal prosecutors themselves have urged the court to impose a sentence of 18 to 24 months. In a move standard with prosecutors, the government lawyer speaking at the hearing said that alcohol rehabilitation/treatment should occur in prison, not on the outside. We should find out September 24 if Masek’s lawyer can come up with a more persuasive argument than has come out so far.