Corruption Probe Dogs Alaska

One former state representative is guilty of bribery. Three more await trial on similar charges. The state's lone congressman is under federal investigation for corruption. A U.S. senator just had his home searched by the FBI.

Corruption Probe Dogs Alaska
This is not exactly the Alaska that Vic Fischer had in mind when he helped draft the state's constitution more than 50 years ago.

"Greed is rampant," said Fischer. "The character of the politicians has changed a lot. I'm very disgusted."

The wave of government corruption allegations has brought national attention to a state that touts its beauty and rugged landscapes, wild salmon and spectacular Northern Lights.

Fischer, current lawmakers and political analysts say the cases are evidence that the state is reaping what it sowed from years of lax oversight and a cozy relationship with the oil industry.

The relationship between lawmakers and the oil industry is a central issue in an investigation that stretches from Juneau to Washington, D.C. First, the former state lawmakers were accused of accepting bribes or extorting favors in exchange for oil tax votes favorable to the industry.

Soon, the Justice Department began looking into the relationship between the contractor VECO Corp. and Alaska's congressional delegation. Earlier this week, federal agents raided the home of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who is under scrutiny for his close relationship with a contractor who oversaw his home renovation project and won millions in federal contracts.

The common denominator in all but one case is former oil field services executive Bill Allen, who recently pleaded guilty to bribing lawmakers who were considering an oil tax bill. He remains at the center of emerging corruption probes.

Allen's company, Anchorage-based VECO Corp., has long been a heavy-hitting player in North Slope oil and gas operations. But Allen and former company vice president Rick Smith, who also pleaded guilty with Allen, became political activists as well.

Allen was once a fixture in the state's Capitol. His presence was so strong he was credited as the driver behind a legal change in the definition of a lobbyist -- essentially so that he no longer had to register as one.

But Allen still pushed his agenda with meetings in the Baranof Hotel, among the city's poshest, and in the Capitol, lawmakers and court records say. He was even spotted improperly passing notes to lawmakers over a railing during a House floor session last year.

Eventually, the lines between the industry and politics became blurred, said former House Minority leader Ethan Berkowitz. The state's checks and balances system eroded and the system broke, he said.

"We've been a one-party state and a one-industry state for too long," he said. "The economic and political power has consolidated into just a few hands and that breeds contempt. That kind of concentration of power gives rise to fascist tendencies."

If things progress, the state's reputation for political corruption could become akin to that of New Jersey or Louisiana, some political analysts said.

"I don't think anybody is going to cancel a summer cruise because of Ted Stevens," said John Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "But it does hurt the brand.

"It's difficult to quantify but that tarnish probably carries a price. It makes it more difficult to press the state's rights or needs when arguing with the federal officials and general public."

In their own quirky way, the developments coincide with the recent release of "The Simpsons Movie," which prominently features the cartoon family's journey to Alaska, prompting Homer Simpson to say it's a place where "you can't be too fat or too drunk."

The movie depicts Alaska almost as a separate country. As Homer crosses the state lines, he's greeted by a customs agent who says, "Welcome to Alaska," then hands Homer $1,000 cash, saying every Alaskan gets a stack of bills so oil companies can exploit the environment.

The effect the scandal could have is not lost on Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, who last year ran her campaign on ethics reform and recently signed a 43-page ethics reform bill into law, a document originally introduced as an eight-page offering in January.

In 2004, as chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she exposed Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich for ethical violations when he was a fellow commissioner.

Now, Palin is trying to convince federal officials that Alaska can foster the right development for a multibillion dollar pipeline she hopes will ship trillions of cubic feet of natural gas from the North Slope to market.

"We should be a leader in energy policy," she said "The only way we can lead is if the rest of the nation is confident our leaders are willing to serve for the right reasons."

"It's a wake up call for Alaska to demand better from its elected and appointed officials," she said. "It's a wake up call that we cannot continue to go down the path that we're on."

Last Mod: 02 Ağustos 2007, 17:23
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