U.S. Supreme Court to hear Weyhrauch's appeal

Former Juneau legislator seeking dismissal of key charge in corruption case

Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide a key part of the corruption charges against former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.

In an unusual move, the nation's highest court agreed to hear an appeal of the case before it has gone to trial, said Doug Pope of Anchorage, who represents Weyhrauch.

It's the third Juneau case in four years to reach the Supreme Court, following the Kensington mine case just decided and 2007's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case.

The decision to hear this case, which is specific to one of several charges against Weyhrauch, will further delay the resolution of all the charges. They have been pending since Weyhrauch's indictment in May 2007.

A U.S. District Court judge in Alaska, John Sedwick, dismissed the charge in question against Weyhrauch just before he was to go to trial in 2007. Prosecutors appealed the dismissal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the charge in November. Then, Weyhrauch sought the Supreme Court's review.

A Supreme Court ruling is likely early next year, and may prevent the case from ever going to trial, Pope said. He said it is unusual for the court to agree to hear the case only to uphold the lower court's decision.

"If they reverse ... then I think the government's case is really in trouble," Pope said.

The prosecutors are being represented by U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan before the Supreme Court, who could not be reached for comment.

In 2006, the FBI searched Weyhrauch and several other legislators' offices. Weyhrauch's indictment accused him of offering to sell his influence in the Legislature to VECO Corp.'s Bill Allen during oil tax and natural gas pipeline negotiations in 2006.

The specific charge the Supreme Court will hear alleges Weyhrauch violated mail fraud statutes by failing to disclose that he was seeking a job from Allen while considering the oil tax legislation. The mail fraud aspect stems from a resume Weyhrauch mailed to Allen in seeking the job.

The question that the justices will decide is whether "the government must prove that the defendant violated a disclosure duty imposed by state law," the court said Monday in its brief announcement.

Alaska's legislative ethics laws have been the focus of controversy for several years, with the legislators claiming that disclosure of conflicts is all that is required.

Alaska's legislative rules require members with conflicts of interest to vote anyway, unless they are given unanimous approval to abstain. That approval is never given in practice.

Pope said state law did not require Weyhrauch to publicly disclose that he was seeking a job from VECO, and therefore there was no crime committed by not disclosing it.

Pope and Weyhrauch's other attorneys say Weyhrauch never offered a favorable vote on oil taxes while he was seeking the job. His letter, Pope said, was sent after he decided not to run for re-election and four days before the legislative session adjourned.

Weyhrauch supported VECO's preferred oil tax rate as part of a "long standing commitment to sensible development of Alaska's natural resources," his attorney said in court filings.

"I don't think he has a corrupt bone in his body, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Pope said.

Prosecutors and lower courts regularly expand the kinds of actions that can be covered by the federal mail fraud statute, but periodically conservatives on the Supreme Court rein them in, Pope said.

Influential conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia could be Weyhrauch's best hope.

"Scalia is my friend on this case," Pope said. "Scalia has been holding the (lower) courts' feet to the fire," he said.

Along with Pope, a former Juneau resident, Weyhrauch is represented by Ray Brown of Anchorage and Donald Ayer of Washington, D.C.

The case against Weyhrauch is being prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. after the U.S. Attorney's office in Alaska recused itself due to potential conflicts of interest.

The federal prosecution has been beset by prosecutorial misconduct issues, and Attorney General Eric Holder has taken a new look at some Office of Public Integrity cases.

For example, former House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, was let out of prison while a federal judge decides what action to take on his charges. Kott was a co-defendant in Weyhrauch's mail fraud case, but went to trial alone on somewhat different charges and was convicted.

A criminal conviction against then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was also dismissed in a related case by the same agency.

Weyhrauch served two terms in the Alaska House of Representatives, elected in 2002 and 2004, but did not run for re-election in 2006.

In 2007, just before his indictment, Weyhrauch nearly died after going overboard from his small boat in Auke Bay. He was later found on a nearby island hypothermic.

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