Corruption allegations casting pall over state

Critics say state is reaping what it sowed with lax oversight

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2007

JUNEAU - One former state representative is guilty of bribery. Three more await trial on similar charges. The state's lone congressman is under federal investigation for corruption. A U.S. senator just had his home searched by the FBI.

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This is not what Vic Fischer envisioned when he and about 50 others drafted the state's constitution 50 years ago.

Now in the wake of the most recent development - Sen. Ted Stevens' Girdwood home being searched by the feds - Fischer, current lawmakers and political analysts say the state is reaping what it sowed from years of lax oversight and a cozy relationship with the oil industry.

"Greed is rampant," said Fischer, who helped draft the state's constitution in 1956. "The character of the politicians has changed a lot.

"I'm very disgusted. It's not so much a matter of betrayal. It's more a matter of sadness and concern, but most of all disgust."

The common denominator in all but one case is former oil field services executive Bill Allen, who recently pleaded guilty of bribing lawmakers who were considering an oil tax bill. He remains at the center of emerging corruption probes.

Allen's company, Anchorage-based VECO Corp., has long been a heavy-hitting player in North Slope oil and gas operations. But Allen and former company vice president Rick Smith, who also pleaded guilty with Allen, became political activists as well.

Allen was once a fixture in the state's capital. His presence was so strong he was credited as the driver behind a legal change in the definition of a lobbyist. It went from someone who does four hours of dedicated lobbying a month to 40 hours a month. The change essentially meant Allen no longer had to register as a lobbyist.

But Allen was still pushing his agenda with meetings in the Baranof Hotel, among the city's poshest; and in the Capitol, lawmakers and court records say. He was even spotted improperly passing notes to lawmakers over a railing during a House floor session last year.

Eventually, the lines between the industry and politics became blurred, said former House Minority leader Ethan Berkowitz. He said the state's checks and balances system eroded into something that is now broken.

"We've been a one-party state and a one-industry state for too long," he said. "The economic and political power has consolidated into just a few hands and that breeds contempt. That kind of concentration of power gives rise to fascist tendencies."

Berkowitz is fast becoming known for a sound bite captured during a May 2006 floor session questioning the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship.

"This is our floor. Our floor," Berkowitz said addressing House Speaker John Harris. "No telephone call's supposed to change what we're doing.

"No lobbyist is supposed to peer over the railing and tell us to change our mind. Never should happen."

It was ultimately a precursor of things to come a few months later when the FBI raided the offices of several state lawmakers, including Stevens' son, former Senate President Ben Stevens.

So far four Republicans have been charged; among those former state Rep. Tom Anderson was found guilty last month.

But the probe has widened to include two of Washington, D.C.'s most senior and outspoken lawmakers who have directed billions in federal funding to Alaska, Stevens and Don Young.

It's brought national attention to a state that touts its beauty and rugged landscapes, wild salmon and spectacular Northern Lights.

But if things progress, its reputation for political corruption could become akin to that of New Jersey or Louisiana, some political analysts said.

"I don't think anybody is going to cancel a summer cruise because of Ted Stevens," said John Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "But it does hurt the brand.

"It's difficult to quantify but that tarnish probably carries a price. It makes it more difficult to press the state's rights or needs when arguing with the federal officials and general public."

This potential predicament is not lost on Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, who last year ran her campaign on ethics reform and recently signed a 43-page ethics reform bill into law, a document originally introduced as an eight-page offering in January.

In 2004, as chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she exposed Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich for ethical violations when he was a fellow commissioner.

He was fined $12,000, the largest civil fine in a state ethics case, for conducting partisan political activity from his state office and leaking a confidential memo to an energy company lobbyist.

Now, Palin is trying to convince federal officials that Alaska can foster the right development for a multibillion dollar pipeline she hopes will ship trillions of cubic feet of natural gas from the North Slope to market.

"We should be a leader in energy policy," she said "The only way we can lead is if the rest of the nation is confident our leaders are willing to serve for the right reasons."

Monday's raid on Stevens' home comes as he and Young ramp up for another election in 15 months; meanwhile former state lawmakers Bruce Weyhrauch and Pete Kott prepare for a September trial, and Vic Kohring braces for an October trial on bribery charges.

In their own quirky way, the developments coincide with the recent release of the Simpson's movie, which prominently features the cartoon family's journey to Alaska, prompting Homer Simpson to say it's a place where "you can't be too fat or too drunk."

The movie depicts Alaska almost as a separate country. As Homer crosses the state lines, he's greeted by a customs agent who says, "Welcome to Alaska," then hands Homer $1,000 cash, saying every Alaskan gets a stack of bills so oil companies can exploit the environment.

At 48 years, Alaska may be a young state - young enough for some constitution framers to still be around - but it's also old enough to know better.

How the state responds, only time will tell.

"It's a wake-up call for Alaska to demand better from its elected and appointed officials," Palin said. "It's a wake-up call that we cannot continue to go down the path that we're on.

"My concerns - and I don't hear enough of talk about this - are that any culture of corruption that exists, what does this do to our kids?

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