Legislature takes action a year after Cowdery guilty plea

Watchdog calls the legislative ethics process, 'late, slow'

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010

The Legislature's Select Committee on Legislative Ethics has found probable cause that former Anchorage Sen. John Cowdery violated legislative ethics rules, but the finding comes more than a year after Cowdery pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiracy to commit bribery.

Cowdery, a Republican, was sentenced to three years probation, six months home confinement and a $25,000 fine for participating in a scheme by former VECO Corp. CEO Bill Allen to bribe an Alaska legislator on oil tax issues.

"Amazing," said Ray Metcalfe, a former Republican legislator from Anchorage who has been critical of the Legislature's ethical standards.

"It wasn't until they were forced by a conviction in federal court to pay attention to any of this stuff," he said.

"It does appear to make some of our ethics laws a little toothless," said Con Bunde, Senate Republican Minority Leader.

The ethics committee issued no penalty against Cowdery, saying the federal criminal sanctions were sufficient punishment.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, a member of the ethics committee, said it may seem late to take action, but the committee had to let the criminal proceeding take place first.

"The ethics committee sort of backed off until the federal case was determined," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, had been among those calling on Cowdery to step down from his Rules Committee position after he was implicated in the VECO corruption scandal, but leaders of the Senate Working Group, the bi-partisan majority that runs the Senate, backed Cowdery.

"It has been my impression that there are some members that aren't anxious for these cases to come to a conclusion. I'll just leave it at that," Bunde said.

Cowdery was a major power broker in the Alaska Legislature, continuing to wield power as chairman of the Senate's Rules Committee, which decides which bills go to the floor of the Senate, even after his office was publicly searched by FBI agents in August of 2006.

Cowdery was indicted in July, 2008, but continued serving as a legislator until his term expired at the end of the year. His attendance was sometimes spotty, but Cowdery blamed that on his health issues.

It is not clear who filed the ethics complaint against Cowdery. Both Bunde and Metcalfe said it was not them, and they aren't sure who it was.

"I've never wasted my time with the Ethics Committee because they are too slow and too late," Metcalfe said.

The legislative ethics process is shrouded in secrecy. The existence of complaints is kept secret, and those who bring complaints barred from talking about them publicly.

When VECO's Allen was bribing Alaska legislators, the two Republican legislators on the committee were Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, both implicated in the scandal.

Weyhrauch is awaiting trial and Stevens was named in court but has not been charged with any crimes.

Metcalfe described the legislature's ethics process as "the fox guarding the henhouse. If you complain to them you are obligated to keep it secret."

Gary Stevens is currently serving on the Ethics committee but said he couldn't say much about the case because of the confidentiality rules.

The Cowdery case did have to be dealt with, however, even if it was late, he said.

"It was one of those things that was hanging out there. The (federal) sentence had occurred, but it still had to be handled by us," Stevens said.

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