Jury selection begins in Kohring trial

Defendant makes an effort to shake hands with his prosecutors

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Chances are there aren't many corruption trials that begin with the defendant crossing over to shake hands with the people trying to put him in prison.

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But that's what former state Rep. Vic Kohring did Monday as jury selection began in his trial on four federal felony counts, including conspiracy and bribery. Opening statements are expected later this week.

The affable Kohring greeted all the familiar faces in the room, including reporters and the prosecution team, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joe Bottini and Edward Sullivan and FBI agent Mary Beth Kepner.

Kohring stands accused of accepting cash handouts from representatives of VECO Corp., a major Alaska oil field services company. VECO would have been in line to bid on millions of dollars in contracts if the Alaska Legislature approved measures that led petroleum companies to expand oil production or build a multibillion dollar natural gas pipeline tapping Alaska's vast North Slope reserves.

Kohring is accused of demanding and accepting at least $2,600 and a $3,000 job for a nephew from VECO CEO Bill Allen or Rick Smith, a company vice president, in exchange for his support on pipeline legislation. Prosecutors also contend Kohring solicited $17,000 to pay off a credit card bill.

Kohring, a Republican, was elected seven times by voters in Wasilla, a city of nearly 6,800 about an hour's drive north of downtown Anchorage. It's the hometown of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who pressured Kohring to resign from the Legislature after he was indicted in May. Kohring reluctantly resigned in July.

Allen for years was a behind-the-scenes political operative who funneled campaign money to pro-development candidates. He and Smith pleaded guilty to bribery in May.

During the trial last month of former state Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, Allen testified he made illegal payments to Kohring, Kott and former state Senate President Ben Stevens, the son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Allen also testified he sent VECO employees to work on the renovation of the elder Stevens' home in Girdwood.

Another former lawmaker, Bruce Weyhrauch of Juneau, is accused of soliciting future work from VECO in exchange for doing the company's bidding. His trial has been delayed.

Neither Ted Stevens nor Ben Stevens have been charged. VECO in August was sold to another company, CH2M Hill, and no longer exists as a separate company.

Kohring has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. He acknowledges taking money from Allen but contends he did so as a friend receiving a gift, not as a legislator on the take.

Federal investigators in late 2005 began wiretapping phones belonging to Allen and Smith. They also secretly installed a video and sound recorder in a Juneau hotel room used by VECO officials as a meeting room during the legislative session. Prosecutors used those recordings to win a conviction in September against Kott.

Recordings also will play a large part in Kohring's trial and both sides contend they will prove their case.

Kohring, who has a reputation for remaining unfailingly polite even when confronted by critics who disagreed with his extreme no-tax increase and pro-development positions, is quoted telling the VECO pair how he was willing to help their cause.

According to the government's trial memorandum, Kohring will be heard telling Smith to call any time that Kohring could be "of assistance on any issue" and that "my door is open here so feel free to call any time."

Prosecutors specifically accuse Kohring of agreeing to release a bill that had been stalled in the House Special Committee on Oil and Gas, which he chaired. Prosecutors say Kohring also fired aide Eric Musser because Musser filed an ethics complaint against his former employer, state Rep. Bev Masek, R-Willow.

Prosecutors say Kohring voted for and lobbied other legislators to support a version of a tax bill desired by the VECO officials. Finally, they say his repeated offers to assist Allen and Smith for natural gas pipeline legislation is evidence of the conspiracy.

Attorneys for Kohring say his friendship with Allen began more than 12 years ago and grew when Kohring married a woman from Russia. Allen's girlfriend also was from Russia. Both women had daughters. The family situations created a special camaraderie and a relationship more personal than professional, according to Kohring.

His attorney will argue that Kohring's positions on Alaska taxes and other legislation affecting a proposed natural gas pipeline were consistent and unaffected by his friendship with Allen.

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