A former state legislator was convicted Tuesday of trading his legislative influence for bribes from a company that was seeking to profit from a proposed natural gas pipeline.
Former Rep. Pete Kott, a Republican who was House speaker for part of his 14-year tenure, was found guilty of accepting nearly $9,000, a political poll and the promise of a job from VECO Corp., an oil field services company.
The case has wide implications because the FBI is investigating whether Ted Stevens, the U.S. Senate’s longest-serving Republican, received illegal gifts from VECO. Stevens has not been charged and has said he paid all bills he received for the remodeling project.
Kott was convicted of conspiracy to solicit financial benefits, extortion and bribery but was acquitted of wire fraud. He did not comment as he walked away from the federal courthouse.
The two-week trial included testimony by VECO chief Bill Allen that he doled out more than $400,000 in bribes to various officials and had company workers remodel the home of Stevens.
Allen and a company vice president, Rick Smith, have pleaded guilty to bribing Kott and other lawmakers. VECO stood to make millions in contracts if the state Legislature approved a revised crude oil tax that encouraged investment. The Legislature passed the tax.
The tax was seen as needed before major petroleum companies would commit to participating in construction of a pipeline tapping Alaska’s vast natural gas reserves on the North Slope and carrying it to the Midwest. That project, which state officials still hope will happen, would cost an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion.
Wiretaps used against Kott
The government’s case against Kott was based on wiretaps of three phones belonging to Allen and Smith, plus video recordings made by a camera that the FBI placed in a hotel room in Juneau rented by VECO during the 2006 legislative session.
The recordings show Kott, Allen and Smith discussing legislative strategy, often in sessions fueled by alcohol and laden with profanity.
Kott’s attorney, Jim Wendt, contended that claims Kott made of his influence on behalf of VECO were merely drunken boasts and that his voting record contradicted claims that he had sold out constituents in favor of VECO.
Juror Susan Pollard said Kott’s testimony in court that he lied to his friends hurt his credibility.
She also said an explanation from Kott, his son and his girlfriend about a $7,993 payment made to the family hardwood flooring business did not match the evidence.
Kott claimed the payment was for future work at the homes of Allen and Smith. Allen and Smith said the money was a bribe paid to Kott so the lawmaker could hire his own son for his re-election campaign in 2006.
Jurors said they reached a conclusion relatively quickly on the three guilty verdicts but struggled over the wire fraud charge. That count was based on a single phone call Kott made to Smith from Washington, D.C., while on legislative business.
In the phone call, Kott sought the phone number of a lobbyist and ended up speaking about official business. Prosecutors said the call was part of a conspiracy.
Ex-lawmaker faces long prison sentence
Kott faces up to 20 years in prison on the extortion charge, up to 10 years on the bribery charge and up to five years on the conspiracy charge, said Department of Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra. Sentencing was set for Dec. 7 by U.S. District Judge John Sedwick, who allowed Kott to remain free until then.
“This verdict is an important victory for the people of Alaska, who deserve to expect honest, ethical representation from their elected officials,” Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division said in a statement.
Stevens’ office had no comment on the verdict.
Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican who has urged Stevens to shed some light on his connections to Allen, issued a news release commending the jurors for their “careful consideration” of the evidence.
“I was shocked by some of the revelations that came out in the trial, and I can understand why many Alaskans feel betrayed,” she said, also calling again for another look at the revised crude oil tax that the approved by the legislature when Kott and other lawmakers were being investigated.
“I am more committed than ever to seeking a fair, untainted solution to our petroleum tax system,” she said, again calling for another look at the revised crude oil tax.