Friday, October 21, 2011
Pete Kott and Vic Kohring Trade Away Their Citizenship Rights to Guarantee They Won't Return to Prison While Karen Loeffler Declares a Victorious End to "POLAR PEN"
On a chilly October morning, two men who had admittedly sold their public offices for cash traded away their rights as citizens to buy a guarantee that they would not return to prison.
The guilty pleas of Pete Kott and Vic Kohring triggered a muted victory dance by the people who had pursued them. U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler proclaimed at a post-sentencing press conference that the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption had been a "huge thing" and was now over.
In back-to-back hearings, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline accepted the plea agreements the two former Alaska lawmakers made with prosecutors. Kott pleaded to bribery, and Kohring pleaded to conspiracy to commit bribery. The bribery occurred in connection with the efforts of VECO CEO Bill Allen and VECO VP Rick Smith in 2006 to get the Alaska Legislature to set tax rates on oil production at levels desired by major oil producers, who were big customers of that Alaska-based multinational oil-services company.
The Apologetic Former Drunk and the Surprisingly Quiet Lightweight
These two defendants were each elected seven times and had tenures as legislators from Southcentral Alaska districts that almost completely overlapped, and both engaged in public corruption. But their different postures in court reflected their different stations in life.
Former Speaker of the Alaska House Kott went first, just as he rose far higher than his fellow Republican Kohring had in the legislature. Kott apologized for his deeds and comments, at least those shown on the "Animal House"-style FBI surveillance videos taken in a VECO-rented hotel suite that were shown at his trial in 2007. That trial produced convictions overturned on grounds of prosecutorial failures discovered in the meltdown of the Ted Stevens prosecution.
"In my heart, I thought that my actions in the Legislature were for the best interests of the State of Alaska," Kott told the court. "I understand that my actions and words off the floor of the Legislature were perhaps wrong."
Judge Beistline agreed with the "wrong" part, telling Kott that the former Air Force officer had "demonstrated a significant character flaw." After 14 years in the legislature, the judge said, Kott seemed to become tired and in need of financial help, so "you sold your soul."
Kott got the sentence he bargained for: no additional time in prison beyond what he has already served on convictions that were overturned, three additional years of supervised release, a $10,000 fine--and no re-trial with the associated cost, hassle, and risk of going back behind bars.
Kohring's sentencing had a different feel presaged by him shaking my hand as he walked into the courtroom and thanking me for being "supportive" on this blog. His comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife this morning. I told her that while Kott's lawyer could say in his sentencing memorandum that Kott recognizes that he had an alcohol problem but no longer suffers from it, it was unlikely that Kohring's attorney would say that his client recognized that he had formerly been delusional.
But I was wrong. In a sentencing memorandum whose contents were only disclosed after the proceeding, Kohring's lawyer said that his client had acknowledged to the federal government before his 2007 trial that Bill Allen had given him $1,000 in cash at a restaurant during the 2006 session. Kohring had previously maintained that he believed that the cash "was intended as a gift."
In the sentencing memorandum submitted this week, Kohring's new lawyer said that "What is different now is that Mr. Kohring has reflected on his actions and Bill Allen's motivations when this money was provided, and now acknowledges that receiving $1,000 came with expectations from Bill Allen that he would get something in return from Vic Kohring."
In another unusual move, Kohring's lawyer contended that his client's cluelessness justified a less severe sentence than other public corruption defendants received. Michael Filipovic, Kohring's Seattle-based public defender, said that the tall man sporting long locks was "not a person who had much persuasive ability with others in the House" and "not the person who could move other people's opinions." In a reversal from what politicians' campaign brochures usually boast, Kohring's lawyer argued that it was his client's own low "horsepower" with his legislative colleagues that meant that he was less dangerous than other office-holding defendants.
The final surreal moment at Kohring's sentencing came when he got his chance to speak directly to the court. His lawyer told his client in one of the loudest stage whispers ever that he had the right to say nothing, and--to the surprise of many in the courtroom--Kohring took that advice.
So there Kohring sat. In addition to the "shame, embarrassment and public ridicule" that other defendants in the "POLAR PEN" probe have suffered, Kohring has particularly bad personal problems. He has poor health that leads him to take medication to fight both pain and anxiety, and he is broke with only a lot of debts and only limited part-time work. Kohring lives with his elderly parents in their mobile home in Wasilla, and serves as their primary caregiver.
Perhaps relieved that Kohring did not try to orally reclaim the innocence that his signed plea agreement had given away, Judge Beistline gave Kohring a break. Kohring got the time served he had bargained for, and--in an area in which the parties had not negotiated a specific agreement--the judge only imposed 18 additional months of supervised release. There is no fine for Kohring, and no curfew like Kott got for the first year of his supervised release.
Judge Beistline seemed to lecture Kohring less, and he reserved much of his remarks in both cases for denunciations of two men who were not in the courtroom. The judge called Allen and Smith "two real disreputable characters" whose behavior in handing out baseball caps advertised their moral flaws. (Testimony at Kott's trial showed that his girlfriend had made up caps that read "CBC"--for "Corrupt Bastards Club"--that Smith had flung around a bar.) The judge called Allen and Smith "rich, greedy, amoral" (although Smith would surely disagree about the term "rich" being applied to him as well as the multimillionaire Allen).
The corruption scandals uncovered in the "POLAR PEN" probe were a "truly dark moment in the state's history," the judge said. Echoing President Gerald Ford's comment when he pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, Judge Beistline told Kott that he was accepting the plea agreement because "I recognize the need to put this long state nightmare to an end."
This Thing's Over and It Gave Us Better Government
That was a common theme from the prosecution and the judge throughout the day: The federal investigation had improved Alaska government, and it was finished.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis said during the Kohring sentencing that he was proud to live in a state and a country where public corruption was not tolerated, and he stated that "Juneau is not the same place it was five years ago."
What had happened to Kohring and Kott would "send shudders to anybody thinking about crossing the line," the judge told Kohring.
"The message has been sent," U.S. Attorney Loeffler said at the post-hearings press conference. "We're in a different era, I hope."
Loeffler worked hard in front of the reporters to embrace the positive while tap dancing away from the negative. Pointing to the 10 people convicted of crimes--including six people who had been sitting lawmakers, representing 10 percent of the legislature--the chief federal prosecutor in Alaska said that the record showed that "We're not a Third World country." She said that the investigations and prosecution had produced a state legislature that was "more honest and open."
Although Loeffler left open the possibility that some other unit of the Department of Justice would do something else, she announced that the job was over for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Alaska. "We're done."
Loeffler repeatedly refused to answer questions about some less attractive aspects of the federal probe into Alaska public corruption. She made it clear that the decisions about Ben Stevens--including the one not to prosecute him--were not made by her office, but by other elements within the Department of Justice. Any federal charges of Bill Allen for alleged sexual abuse of minors would come from the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, not her office. All questions about investigations of prosecutors and investigators who formerly handled "POLAR PEN" cases had to be directed to people in Washington, D.C., where those investigations were being run.
Loeffler and the chief FBI agent in Anchorage, Mary Rook, did confirm the locations of some personnel who formerly worked on those cases. The former lead FBI agent on POLAR PEN, Mary Beth Kepner, attended Kott's sentencing and still works in the Anchorage FBI office. Chad Joy, who formerly served as co-lead agent and became a whistle-blower with grievances particularly aimed at Kepner, is no longer with the FBI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Bottini still works in the Anchorage office, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Goeke works for the Department of Justice outside of Alaska.
(This blog post was improved by sitting next to Mark Regan during some of the proceedings. The precise wording of the quotation from Pete Kott comes from the report of Kim Murphy in the Los Angeles Times.)
Tomorrow: What Did "POLAR PEN" Mean?