Column: Clark's plea raises questions

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Two years ago, talk of corruption and public officials on the take was an inside joke at the Alaska Capitol as many made light of the Corrupt Bastards Club and those who might qualify for membership.

It wasn't quite as funny yesterday as Jim Clark, former Gov. Frank Murkowski's chief of staff, entered a guilty plea to federal corruption charges that stem from a two-year investigation that now touches state government at the highest level.

What a shame and an embarrassment to see Clark, a longtime Juneau citizen, lobbyist, attorney and public servant, admitting he's just as sleazy and as greasy as former legislators Pete Kott and Vic Kohring, both of whom are now felons convicted of corruption.

Clark's plea raises some interesting questions about the federal investigation that now seems to be zeroed in on the office of Murkowski himself. Among them are:

• Clark pleaded guilty on Monday before being charged, indicted and tried for any crime. Does that mean the FBI had enough evidence to persuade him to make a plea deal, thereby sparing himself the prospect of serving more time in prison than he will otherwise have to spend?

• If the FBI's case is ultimately leading to Murkowski, is it possible others who were closest to Murkowski (staff, aides) may find themselves under the corruption microscope? I'm going to answer yes to that one.

• In copping his plea, is Clark maintaining more blind loyalty to Murkowski, thereby falling on his proverbial sword for the man, or does it mean he's saving his hide and dishing dirt on others who are as corrupt as he's admitting he is?

• What might Clark's plea mean for former state Senate President Ben Stevens and former Juneau Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch? Stevens has been implicated in court testimony as accepting bribes, but has not been charged with a crime. Weyhrauch pleaded not guilty to corruption charges and is awaiting trial. If Clark is forthcoming about what he knows, might information he gives the feds be enough to seal the cases against Stevens and Weyhrauch?

• As a man in a former position of such power, prominence and prestige, how does Clark face the friends and colleagues who heretofore may have held him in high regard?

If Clark's case weren't so ironic - this from a career attorney who certainly knew better - it might actually be sad. But he broke the law, plainly and simply, and neither he nor anyone else can argue that he didn't know exactly what he was doing at the time he did it. Clark's friends and political buddies will try to dress it up differently, but if it were anything else, he wouldn't have pleaded guilty to a crime (or crimes) he didn't commit.

Going back to early 2004, I've suspected Clark of being loyal to a fault to Murkowski, who on numerous occasions made Clark take the heat for him privately and publicly. But to knowingly take a fall like this for a man as arrogant as Murkowski, who expects undying loyalty but doesn't give it, is far beyond fault.

Because he's now guilty of a federal crime, Clark will have to surrender his license to practice law and, longer term, live with a reputation he alone destroyed by placing himself above the law and everyone else in this state.

Clark was, for a time at least, "someone" in the realm of Alaska politics. Today, though, he's been reduced to criminal status all because he dishonestly hustled $68,000 to help further a political cause, a political party and what he thought would be a political campaign. Maybe it was worth it to someone, but surely not to Jim Clark.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.

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