VECO polling assistance comes under scrutiny

Statute of limitations may preclude violations from being pursued

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Alaska Public Offices Commission decided Monday to investigate whether VECO Corp. may have violated campaign finance rules by providing poll results to favored candidates without reporting the cost of the poll.

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Such contributions could be either illegal corporate contributions or reporting violations on the part of candidates.

The practice is one of the ways the formerly powerful player in Alaska politics asserted its influence in the state, according to a federal indictment. VECO, an oil field services company, is now part of Colorado-based CH2M-Hill.

It's questionable whether APOC can pursue penalties due to the commission's one-year statute of limitations on such investigations, but the investigation may be valuable anyway, said one commissioner, Elizabeth Hickerson.

"I am less concerned about the statute of limitations as I am about getting at the facts," said Hickerson, an attorney and a Democratic commission member from Anchorage.

The commission's authority over campaign finance violations goes back for only one year from the dates of violations. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he intends to introduce legislation extending that to four years.

Hickerson said an investigation may highlight the need for a longer statute of limitations for the Legislature.

A little more than a year ago, FBI agents revealed to top VECO executives that they were under investigation as part of a widespread probe into influence buying in Alaska politics.

Any violation that could be pursued would have to have occurred after the FBI investigation was revealed.

"I don't think we have a violation within one year before us," said Roger Holl, commission chairman and a public member of the commission from Anchorage. He also is an attorney.

The allegation that VECO has paid for polls used by numerous candidates over the years was made by former VECO executive Rick Smith in testimony during the federal bribery trial of former Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, in Anchorage.

Among the federal charges against Kott is that a poll VECO provided for his campaign constituted a bribe.

Former state legislator and APOC critic Ray Metcalfe had earlier urged the commission to investigate all 60 legislators, but had not filed a formal complaint as of the commission's special Monday morning meeting.

Commission members weren't clear on whether Metcalfe wanted unsuccessful candidates to be investigated as well.

Department of Law attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh called Metcalfe's accusations "incredibly vague and general."

The commission, however, decided to investigate the matter on its own.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he could say that VECO never provided him with any poll results.

"That's probably not a surprise to anyone," he said.

Elton was pushing for a higher oil tax rate than that which VECO executives sought.

One of the first steps taken in the investigation may be to simply call up Smith and see if he'll say who VECO provided the polling data to, commissioners said. Others cautioned that he may not be able to talk, because of the ongoing federal investigation.

Smith has already pleaded guilty, and Hickerson said his testimony against his own interests should be considered reliable.

"If his testimony is correct, and I have no reason to doubt it, there were violations," Hickerson said.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.





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