ANCHORAGE - Facing a prison sentence of 3½ years, a former Alaska lawmaker said he's broke and has lost respect for the U.S. government, but that his conscience is clear.
Former state Rep. Vic Kohring was sentenced Thursday for bribery and two other felony corruption charges, convictions he blamed on prosecutors who twisted his words and a judge with a conflict of interest.
"I refuse to cower before you in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence," he told U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick.
The seven-term Republican from Wasilla said he had to borrow a truck to drive to the courthouse and it broke down on the way. He hitchhiked and was picked up by a loyal constituent who immediately put him on his church's prayer chain, Kohring said.
Kohring was convicted in November of accepting at least $2,600 from executives of VECO Corp., an Alaska company with more than 4,000 employees that provided engineering, construction and facility maintenance services to major oil producers. Its officers also carried enormous political clout, sponsoring fundraisers and donating to candidates.
Kohring was the third Alaska Republican lawmaker with ties to VECO convicted last year of bribery charges. The FBI also is investigating remodeling work that VECO employees did at the home of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in Senate history. Stevens has said he paid all bills presented to him.
Stevens' son, Ben, was paid consulting fees of nearly a quarter million dollars by VECO and only worked on legislative business on behalf of the company, a company official testified. He has not been charged.
VECO CEO Bill Allen and a company vice president, Rick Smith, said they bribed Alaska lawmakers to procure legislation, including a favorable tax rate, that would lead to the construction of a massive natural gas pipeline project delivering North Slope reserves to customers in the Midwest.
The project would have been a gold mine for an oil field service company such as VECO and, Allen said in court, a boon to the Alaska economy for decades.
Prosecutors contend Kohring played on Allen's generosity and desire for a reliable vote in the state House by pleading poverty. They said Kohring used Allen as a "human ATM," tapping him for handouts of $600 to $700 at a time.
Allen testified he first gave Kohring cash in 2002 when the lawmaker told him he was sleeping in his legislative office and that he was short on money for food. Over the next three years, Allen said, he gave cash to Kohring three or four times. He felt sorry for the lawmaker but also wanted to "make sure he was loyal," he said.
One such transaction was caught on video by FBI agents who hid a camera in a hotel room rented by VECO in Juneau, Alaska's capital, in March 2006. Allen handed over $100 to Kohring for his stepdaughter's Easter egg hunt, then gave Kohring an additional $600 he said could help pay for her Girl Scout uniform.
Prosecutors pushed to have Kohring sentenced for requesting a $17,000 loan from Allen and for securing a paid VECO internship for his nephew.
Kohring acknowledged Thursday only that he had been naive.
"I should not have taken the gifts even though they were from a longtime friend," he said.
Sedwick last month rejected Kohring's claims that the judge's rulings were biased. Sedwick called Kohring's allegations inaccurate, misleading and unsubstantiated.
Kohring claims he did not realize until near the end of his trial that the judge was connected to "one of my biggest personal and political enemies," the judge's wife, Deborah Sedwick, who showed up for closing arguments.
Deborah Sedwick was commissioner of Community and Regional Affairs under former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat. Kohring claimed Deborah Sedwick lost her job because of legislation he sponsored to merge her department with another. However, Knowles ended up appointing her commissioner of the merged departments.
Kohring said unfavorable rulings made by Judge Sedwick could have been tied to his antagonistic relationship with Deborah Sedwick.
"Was there a payback here? I'm always going to wonder that," he said.
Kohring also wanted Sedwick off the case because he lives across the street from Allen and because he attended high school with Smith.
Kohring's attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said Kohring's appeal would start with the judge's refusal to disqualify himself.
"If a juror had said, 'I live next door to Bill Allen,' that juror would not sit on the case. If a juror had said, 'Oh, Mr. Kohring went after my wife and tried to destroy her department and cut back her budget, that juror would not be allowed to sit on this case. That judge had an obligation to tell us of those things. He did not. That was wrong, and he will be reversed, period."
Sedwick refused to let Kohring supporters testify on the lawmaker's "mantra" - parting words he said to nearly everyone he encountered, including Allen: "Let me know what I can do to help; my door is always open to you; feel free to call me anytime."
"It's really ironic that these very words have now been used against me by the government to erroneously claim they represented a bribe," Kohring said.
Prosecutors asked for a sentence of five years, rejecting Browne's contention that Kohring's behavior was an aberration and that he could be compared to a lovable small-town sheriff on the old television sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show. Kohring accepted bribes over four years, said assistant U.S. attorney Joe Bottini.
"I don't remember any episodes of that show where Andy Griffith took cash," Bottini said.
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