Cowdery skips session, critics not satisfied

Former Republican legislator calls for resignation of lawmaker ID'd by former VECO Corp. executive

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2007

A decision by Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, to skip October's special session on oil taxes isn't satisfying some critics.

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"It think it is a bad decision," said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, leader of the Senate Republican Minority. "I think it is a way of avoiding the central question of whether he should have a leadership position."

Cowdery has long been a power in the Legislature but was identified in recent court testimony by a former VECO Corp. executive as one of those receiving bribes from the oil field services company last year to influence oil tax rates. Among the alleged recipients, only Cowdery currently holds elective office.

Cowdery says he's innocent, but that his presence during the session would be a "distraction." He has not been publicly accused of a crime by federal prosecutors probing corruption in Alaska.

He holds three committee chairmanships, including that of the powerful Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation to the Senate floor. Other positions include chairmanship of the Legislative Council and Senate Special Committee on World Trade/Federal Relations.

"All of those chairmanships come with control over budgets," Therriault said.

Therriault's five-member caucus, the Senate Republican Minority, objected to Cowdery's appointment as chairman of the Rules Committee when the Senate organized in January.

The Senate Working Group, a 15-member, bipartisan coalition headed by Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, backed Cowdery and elected Green as Senate president. That coalition is made up of six Republicans, including Green and Cowdery, and nine Democrats.

Green declined to comment on Cowdery's action.

Former Senate Democratic leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, a prominent member of the Senate Working Group, did not respond to an interview request.

Therriault said Cowdery's 32,000 constituents deserve representation, even if Cowdery has a conflict of interest.

Juneau Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat and member of the Senate Working Group, said he supported Cowdery's decision to not attend.

"That's between him and his constituents," he said.

One of those constituents is Ray Metcalfe, a former Republican legislator and self-appointed governmental ethics watchdog, who opposed Cowdery's decision to not attend the special session.

"It will take 11 votes to pass any revision of the (Petroleum Profits Tax.) His absence equals a no vote on any issue. If he can't be there to represent his district with a yes vote on any worthy proposal, he should resign," Metcalfe said.

The unindicted Cowdery's tactic is the same as that used by Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, after he was indicted on charges of accepting oil industry bribes, but before he resigned, to avoid voting on a gas tax plan.

Standard practice in the Alaska Legislature is for legislators with conflicts of interest to declare them on the floor and ask to be excused from voting. If even one legislator objects, the presiding officer will require them to vote despite the conflict.

Typically a host of legislators object anonymously, and legislators are always required to vote.

When Gov. Sarah Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act came to the House floor a few weeks after Kohring was indicted, Kohring didn't show up on the floor. At the time Kohring's staff said he had another engagement, but he later told The Associated Press he simply wanted to avoid the vote.

Legislative rules require members to show up and vote on every issue, but Elton said he did not expect that rule to be enforced.

In any event, it wouldn't be an issue until Oct. 27. Before the end of the regular session in May, Cowdery scheduled an excused absence from Oct. 18-26 in case a special session were scheduled, said Kirsten Waid, Senate secretary. It's standard practice for legislators to block out periods in which they are excused from legislative work during the interim to allow for a vacation or deal with other obligations.

For the special session, Cowdery will be replaced as chairman of the Rules Committee by the vice chairman, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. Stevens said he expects the committee, which schedules bills for the floor, will have little to do in a session likely to have only one big bill to consider.

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