Editor's note: A version of the following commentary was first featured in Make-A-Scene, a monthly community publication serving readers in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. It is the eighth installment in a series through which Mr. Kohring intends to tell his own side of the federal probe of public corruption in Alaska.
The Anchorage Daily News reported in its May 30th edition on the front page that the oil industry has been funding legislative candidate campaigns with the expectation of receiving support in return -- namely rolling back Sarah Palin's massive tax increases from 2007, which are setting Alaska up for economic calamity. Lowering taxes to encourage growth in the industry is imperative, but the method is questionable as outlined by the ADN. This method is what I refer to as "legalized bribery." A candidate receives thousands of dollars in funding from supporters. Then once in office, they help these very individuals with legislation. A direct quid-pro-quo, which is legal only because state law says it's so.
Forget about the silly five, twenty dollar bills Veco CEO Bill Allen gave me for Easter eggs as shown on the infamous, "iconic" video tape and the government's phony accusations which resulted in several false convictions and my imprisonment. Instead, consider the ADN's news story. Then take a look at the reports filed by legislative candidates with the state watchdog agency APOC, the Alaska Public Offices Commission. They reveal thousands, sometimes cumulatively tens of thousands of dollars politicians receive as "donations" (bribes really) from individuals and special interests. Then follow the money. Trust me, most checks are not cut to be nice as if some kind of charitable giving. They are to buy influence. The medical and pharmaceutical industry is active in Juneau in this regard. So are auto associations. Builders. Realtors. The oil industry. Unions especially. The list is almost endless. These groups slip many thousands of dollars in checks to politicians and their personal election campaigns. And like clockwork, many of these candidates, once in office, vote in legislation and capital project money for their friends as payback. Some even go as far as to write and sponsor legislation directly benefiting the very organization, corporations, people and special interest groups -- their buddies -- who fund a large share of their campaigns. It's a big back-scratching game in Juneau. Dishonorable, but sadly, legal.
The angelic attitude of many of these self-righteous politicians is a turn-off. A large percentage are at least borderline corrupt, perhaps some unknowingly, yet go around behaving as if they are so very moral. The only reason some are not in the Big House is because laws have been written (by legislators, the "foxes guarding the hen house") making it technically legal to engage in such legalized bribery. You can easily find a direct correlation between money and favors provided in return. Look at donors on the APOC reports. Much of this information is available online. $500 checks are cut frequently. Money flows freely. Pop the champagne cork! Then compare these so-called "contributions" with voting records on the state BASIS system. Check to see what legislation was sponsored and by whom. It should amaze you.
And to think I was harassed over a $100 gift for Easter eggs while some of these politicians looked down their noses at me with scorn. Many of my former politician "friends" know I'm right -- that legalized bribery is mainstream in Juneau. The norm. Yet most look the other way. These pols won't admit it and too afraid to stick their necks out and risk their careers by doing something about it including changing existing laws. They don't want to be shoved outside their comfort zone. Staying quiet, fat and happy is much easier.
Legalized bribery knows little bounds. It exists at the state and federal levels and crosses party lines. An example at the federal level involves our president. He received campaign donations of over $87,000 from executives of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturing company. Solyndra's primary investor, billionaire George Kaiser, cut Obama a $53,500 check in 2008. A short time later, these same officials approached the administration to request financial help and were promptly given a $535 million taxpayer, guaranteed loan. Isn't this bribery by most people's definition? It sure looks like it. It's hard to find a more clear quid-pro-quo. Making matters worse, the company went bankrupt shortly afterward, leaving us taxpayers holding the bag and forced to pay the defaulted loan.
Another example is Alaska's lone Congressman, a Republican, Don Young's $41,000 in campaign contributions thanks to Florida developer Dan Aronoff, who then obtained Young's help securing a $10-million appropriation as part of building a freeway interchange close to a large parcel of undeveloped land owned by Aronoff, vastly increasing its potential value. And don't forget Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu who was bought off by her Democrat colleagues with an astounding $300 million for state projects in exchange for her Obamacare vote, infamously referred to as the "Louisiana Purchase." While not a campaign donation, the trough feeding still greatly benefited Landrieu politically.
"Imprimis," a publication by the private Hillsdale College in Michigan ran a timely article in its March 2012 edition. It was a speech by William McGurn who writes for the Wall Street Journal. He spoke on corruption within public service and how politicians are "in bed" with their financial supporters, basically being bought off and expected to carry their water in return for campaign money. McGurn also discusses the corrupting influence of unions and how they've paid off many a politician (legally, but not ethically). The exact same thing happens in Juneau and Washington D.C. I've seen it many times as a seven-term legislator, so I know. Individuals and groups with an agenda approach politicians with money for their campaigns and then fully expect something in return, a direct quid-pro-quo. And guess what, they often get it. Bills are filed on their behalf, money is slipped into capital budgets. Sometimes millions. This may be legal technically, but it's not morally right.
Legislation is long past due to stop such bribery dead in its tracks. This activity must be made illegal at both the state and federal levels. Stop the charade and secret little game played by politicians who act blameless and pretend to be virtuous as they quietly reach deep into the pockets of lobbyists and special interests, and then do their bidding with a wink and nod. A bill which bars an elected official from sponsoring legislation directly benefiting an individual or group who gave the lawmaker a campaign contribution, say, in excess of $100 within the proceeding 24 months would be a good start. The likelihood of such reform is slim though, as these guys don't want their gravy train to end.
Some of these same holier-than-thou politicians were the first to jump all over me with criticism when I was first implicated by the Feds. One former legislator-turned-lobbyist from Southeast Alaska was quick to criticize me in the press before I even had a chance to defend myself one iota in court. He beat his chest and war drums against me. I learned later he himself was getting dragged into the whole Polar Pen legal mess involving Veco and Bill Allen, and apparently felt a need to deflect attention toward himself by taking shots at me. Our esteemed governor at the time jumped on the same bandwagon, calling for my resignation without seeing a shred of evidence. All of this contributed to my eventual conviction, as these unfortunate remarks made it more difficult to seat an unbiased jury, because many people assumed I was guilty based on what they read in the papers. It was sad to witness hypocrisy by those who themselves actively, but dishonorably, engage in "legal" bribery.
Ironically, I was publicly butchered over Easter eggs and a summer internship for my 9-year-old stepdaughter and teenaged nephew. A huge spectacle out of virtually nothing. It was all a big show put on by the government to create an illusion that it was doing its job by supposedly flushing out corruption and spending our tax dollars wisely. A crock. The only shame I feel is for the real corrupt individuals in our "distinguished" judiciary who harassed me for five years like crazed pit bulls in need of a serious neuter job. They must have practically wetted their pants with excitement when secretly capturing me on video accepting Allen's Easter egg gift, believing they had an excuse to indict a sitting legislator. I'm also ashamed to witness the ongoing corruption in Juneau -- even if technically legal -- where pols, those in love with the sound of their own voices, are being bought off by special interests and their lobbyist connections.
Nearly everyone in this world has screwed up a little. I'm no exception. People tell white lies, cheat a little on their taxes, fudge here and there. It's human nature and reflects the fact that we're all imperfect. While I'm not a liar nor have I cheated on my taxes, I've still made regrettable mistakes including accepting Bill Allen's gifts, but with never an intention of committing a crime. Nor did I ever feel beholden to someone simply because they gave me a campaign contribution, to the chagrin of some. We make lots of mistakes as we live life and hopefully learn from them. I sure have. But for me to be so harshly judged and punished over accepting a $100 gift from Allen for my little girl is ludicrous, if not criminal itself.
Vic Kohring represented Wasilla, Chugiak and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in the Alaska House of Representatives. He was first elected in 1994 and resigned in 2007.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.