VECO official admits bribing Ben Stevens

Nearly a quarter of a million dollars may have been paid

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Former state Senate President Ben Stevens was paid consulting fees of nearly a quarter million dollars by oil field services company VECO Corp. and only worked on legislative business on behalf of the company, a government witness testified Thursday.

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Rick Smith, a former VECO vice president for government and community affairs, testified in the bribery trial of former state Rep. Vic Kohring. Both Smith and VECO founder Bill Allen in May pleaded guilty to bribing public officials. Allen and Smith are required under their plea agreements to provide substantial assistance in the government's ongoing investigations.

Kohring's attorney, John Henry Browne, sought to draw a contrast between the amount of money Smith said Stevens received during his five years in office and the $2,600 Kohring is accused of receiving from VECO.

Stevens is the son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Senate's longest serving Republican. The elder Stevens is also under federal investigation after VECO employees helped remodel his house. Neither Stevens has been charged with any crime.

Smith, referring to his own plea agreement, acknowledged that Ben Stevens was one of the public officials he bribed. VECO made monthly payments to Stevens through a consulting contract that began before Stevens was a senator and continued after he was appointed to the state Senate, Smith said. Payments while Stevens was in office totaled $243,250, Smith said.

Smith testified that Stevens was paid for work related to his legislative service and not for anything outside those duties.

The money was for giving advice, lobbying colleagues and official acts before the Legislature, Smith said under questioning from Browne, who quoted from the plea agreement.

"That's all illegal, isn't it?" Browne asked. Smith agreed it was.

"I think that's the gist of it," Smith said.

Smith's testimony came late Thursday. Messages left at the Seattle office and on the cell phone of Ben Stevens' attorney, John Wolfe, were not immediately returned.

As a major Alaska oil field services company service company, VECO engineered, built, repaired and maintained facilities for Alaska's three major oil companies, ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips.

Allen for decades had been a major behind-the-scenes political operative, showering cash on political candidates who supported his pro-development, pro-oil industry agenda.

Smith also said VECO had promised Stevens a job once he left office.

Allen is scheduled to testify after Smith.

But in September, at the trial of former state Rep. Pete Kott, he testified that he recruited Ben Stevens for consulting work after he graduated from college in 1995. Allen testified he did not feel right cutting VECO's ties to Stevens after he was appointed by Gov. Tony Knowles to the state Senate.

Wolfe, Stevens' attorney, responded to that testimony.

"Mr. Stevens has consistently said he's not engaged in any of the illegal activity that is alleged by Mr. Allen. He denies it," Wolfe said in September.

Besides Kohring and Stevens, Smith's plea agreement said he bribed Kott, state Sen. John Cowdery and former state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch.

Kott, who represented Eagle River in the state House, including one session as speaker, was convicted Sept. 25 of three federal corruption charges. Cowdery, R-Anchorage, has not been charged. Weyhrauch, a former Juneau Republican state representative, is charged with assisting VECO in the legislature for the promise of future legal work. His trial, scheduled for last month, was delayed while federal prosecutors appeal a decision by U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick.

The judge ruled that federal attorneys could not claim that state lawmakers under their own rules were required to disclose that they were seeking employment from VECO while they were voting on bills in which VECO had an interest.

Smith testified he is facing nine to 11 years in prison but acknowledged under Browne's questions that prosecutors could seek a reduction with his "substantial assistance."

Kohring, elected seven times to the state House from Wasilla, is accused of demanding and accepting at least $2,600 from VECO officials in exchange for his support on legislation that they hoped would lead to construction of a natural gas pipeline tapping Alaska's vast North Slope reserves.

Prosecutors also contend Kohring solicited a job from VECO for his nephew and that Kohring sought $17,000 to pay off a credit card debt.

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