ANCHORAGE - With the general election less than two months away, incumbents and challengers alike are assessing how to handle campaign donations from oil services company Veco Corp., which the FBI is investigating for its longtime role as a heavyweight in Alaska politics.
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Of the political candidates who have received donations from Veco, some have decided to return them because of public perception that the money is somehow tainted.
Republican lieutenant governor candidate Sean Parnell returned two $500 checks that Veco officials gave him in August.
"I can best meet those standards of public trust and transparency by returning the contributions," he said.
Republican House candidate Jeff Gonnason, who's running against Democrat Rep. Harry Crawford in East Anchorage, said Friday he returned six $500 checks he received from Veco officials late last year.
Gonnason said no one from Veco ever contacted him or implied strings were attached to the money, however, he didn't want the donations to be a liability to his campaign.
Another Republican contender for state House in East Anchorage, Matt Moon, said he also returned six $500 donations from Veco officials, as well as a donation from Senate President Ben Stevens, one of six lawmakers whose offices were searched by the FBI.
"I have promised to myself and to my voters that I do not want to engage in any unethical behavior, even if it's only perceived," said Moon, who is running against Democrat Max Gruenberg.
But some lawmakers see nothing wrong with keeping the money, saying that their votes were not affected by the oil field service giant or its executives, who are also being searched and questioned.
Republican majority leader, Rep. John Coghill of North Pole, said he's not returning five $500 contributions from Veco executives because he's done nothing wrong.
"My record's clear," he said.
Coghill said the donations made it easier for Veco officials to get time to speak with him, but didn't sway his decisions on the House floor.
"It certainly helps their access to me," Coghill said. "But it doesn't put me under any obligation." Coghill said he voted for a higher petroleum profits tax than Veco wanted, for example.
The FBI has conducted searches on offices of six sitting legislators besides Stevens: Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage; Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome; Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River; Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla; and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.
At least four other lawmakers, including Coghill, have been interviewed by the FBI and some have said they were assured they were not a target.
State Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said the FBI asked him for an interview a few days ago, but later said they didn't need to talk to him after all.
"I'm certain I'm a million miles away from being a subject of an investigation," Ramras said.
Ramras said he has not decided what to do with six $500 campaign contributions from Veco executives.
Coghill said he didn't hesitate to sit down with the agents in the federal building in Fairbanks, but told them he'd walk out if they "tried to lead me into something."
The FBI wanted to know if Veco had ever offered him or his wife a job, or asked him to vote a certain way or put in certain amendments, he said.
Nothing happened that was out of line, he said. Veco certainly lobbied him, he said, but nothing that went beyond a professional business relationship.
The investigation is worrisome for Republican leaders who said some lawmakers the FBI is interviewing as witnesses could be misjudged just because they are being questioned.
House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, wants the FBI to clarify who is and is not implicated, otherwise "the public thinks everyone is guilty." The agency has not responded to his request.
Party attorney Bill Large said the government sometimes will give witnesses "a non-subject" letter that explains they are not a target in an investigation.
If any Republican candidates are contacted by the FBI, Large said, they can ask for that written assurance, can be represented by a lawyer, and don't have to talk at all.
Large told the Anchorage Daily News he isn't encouraging people to keep quiet, he just wants them to know their rights. He wouldn't represent them but he could help them find an attorney.
"I think the general perception is, you get interviewed and, oh man, why would they be talking to them unless they did something wrong," Large said.
Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com