'A black day for the House'

Two former lawmakers, one sitting legislator enter not guilty pleas

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2007

A federal grand jury has indicted three current and former Alaska legislators, including former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, in connection with allegations of taking bribes from oil companies trying to influence the state's oil tax rates and development of a natural gas pipeline.

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One sitting legislator was indicted: Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, chairman of the House Special Committee on Oil and Gas. He is expected to be removed from his chairmanship Monday.

All the accused pleaded not guilty.

Arrested at his home in Juneau was former Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, who had served as House Speaker in 2003-04. Weyhrauch and Kohring turned themselves in.

State Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, called it a "black day for the House of Representatives."

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement on the case Friday after investigating the Alaska Legislature for what may have been years.

"These two indictments allege that the defendants sold their offices in Alaska's State House to an influential energy company in exchange for cash payments, loans, jobs for relatives and the promise of future employment," Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said he was "not very happy" to find members of his Legislature under investigation. He said, however, that he was "not shocked," since there had been indications of improper dealings.

If the allegations are true, " It looks like folks had motives that weren't in the best interests of the state in how they voted, and that's sad. That's not right," he said.

FBI agents last year searched the offices of Weyhrauch, Kott, Kohring and three other lawmakers.

Weyhrauch did not run forre-election and has declined public comment on the issue. Kott sought re-election but was defeated in the primary. Both of their terms ended this year.

Weyhrauch and Kott were indicted Thursday and taken into custody Friday. They face a total of seven charges, including conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery. Kohring was indicted separately on three charges.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Kott was arrested at his home in Juneau. Several legislators say they were unaware Kott had become a Juneau resident.

The federal indictment does not name the company paying the bribes. It alludes to an oil field services company that appears to fit the description of VECO Corp., whose offices were also searched in the federal investigation.

Late Friday, VECO acknowledged that it was the company mentioned in the indictment.

Kott had a flooring business and was accused in the indictment of taking bribes through inflated invoices for flooring work. Weyhrauch, an attorney, was accused of soliciting future legal work from VECO in exchange for his support on pending legislation.

Kohring was accused of taking cash bribes, including $500 while walking down a Juneau street.

Former Rep. Tom Anderson was indicted on similar corruption charges in December and is awaiting trial in June.

"Mr. Kohring intends to vigorously fight the allegations contained in the indictment and expects that he will be vindicated," said Will Vandergriff, press secretary for the House Majority.

Wehyrauch did not return calls to his home or law office, and Kott's attorney was unavailable Saturday.

During last year's lengthy and contentious floor debate on the gas pipeline and oil taxes, witnesses told the Empire they saw VECO executives, including CEO Bill Allen, passing notes to legislators on the House floor.

In some cases, said House Democratic Press Secretary Frank Ameduri, Anderson carried messages from VECO executives in the gallery to other members of the Legislature.

Then-House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, rose to denounce interference in the legislative process. Weyhrauch denied that what they'd just witnessed had taken place, Ameduri said.

State Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau said she was very surprised by the indictment, even after last year's FBI raids.

"He's (Weyhrauch) held in great respect, admiration, and even love and affection," she said.

After a recent boating mishap, legislators who feared the missing Weyhrauch might be dead offered prayers for their former colleague. Legislators were on the floor of the House when word came that a search team had found Weyhrauch alive, and cheers broke out.

Doll has the seat Weyhrauch once held. She said the people of Juneau will support him as much as possible.

"I don't think the community is going to jump to any conclusions," she said.

"We're going to wait and see what comes out of this," she said. "In the meantime, I think he can expect to have community support."

Doll was elected to the open seat after Weyhrauch chose in June not to run after serving two terms representing the Mendenhall Valley. The FBI raid on his office came in August.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he's always respected Weyhrauch's commitment to his family and community and was shocked by the allegations.

"I can't even begin to imagine how difficult this is for Bruce and his family," he said.

Harris said he expected House leaders to meet Monday and remove Kohring from his committee chairmanship to avoid concerns he could continue to influence the legislative process.

"That doesn't mean we think he's guilty," he said.

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