Court tosses former Alaska lawmaker's conviction

AP News
|
Posted: Mar 11, 2011 7:24 PM
Court tosses former Alaska lawmaker's conviction

A federal appeals court on Friday tossed the conviction of a former Alaska lawmaker accused of bribery, delivering another stinging rebuke to the way prosecutors handled a wide-ranging corruption probe in the state.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial after finding prosecutors withheld information that could have been favorable to the defense of Victor Kohring.

One of those judges, Betty Fletcher, issued a partially dissenting opinion, arguing the indictment against Kohring should have been dismissed. She said the case exemplifies "flagrant prosecutorial misconduct."

"The prosecution failed to disclose thousands of pages of material documents _ including FBI reports, memoranda and police reports _ until after Kohring's conviction," she wrote, adding later that dismissal of the indictment was justified "not only as a deterrent but to release Kohring from further anguish and uncertainty."

Kohring was accused of taking money from officials of an oil-field service company then offering to do their bidding in the Legislature.

He was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy to commit extortion, attempted extortion and bribery then sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. He was released in 2009 while his case underwent further review. He is currently free on bond, living in Alaska.

The U.S. Department of Justice said the decision was being reviewed.

The new information came to light after prosecutors were criticized for their handling of the corruption case against then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

Stevens was convicted on counts of lying on financial disclosure forms about gifts, an outcome that ended his political career. A federal judge later threw out the matter, finding prosecutors had withheld evidence at trial.

Corey Endo, an assistant federal defender working on Kohring's case, said concerns about the prosecution prompted Kohring's former attorney to ask the government to release any information it had withheld in his case. Volumes of material were turned over, she said.

Another former lawmaker convicted on corruption charges, Pete Kott, is also seeking a new trial or dismissal of charges, claiming evidence was withheld. His case is pending.

A central figure in all three cases is Bill Allen, a former oil services company chief and key witness in the cases against Stevens, Kohring and Kott.

According to the majority decision, written by Judge Sidney R. Thomas, the government maintained that the new information cast no doubt on videotaped evidence of Kohring allegedly soliciting $17,000 from Allen.

Allen was one of two executives whose testimony suggested Kohring got money and other perks in exchange for legislative actions for the company known as VECO.

But the panel said there's no way to determine whether the jury based all three convictions on the alleged solicitation "rather than other multiple acts alleged by the government." Jurors were only given a general verdict form.

The court decision shows the newly disclosed information in dispute included evidence that Allen had been investigated for sexual misconduct with minors _ a claim it says Kohring could have used to discredit Allen. On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said no charges had been filed as a result of the investigation.

He also said politics played no role in the Justice Department's decision not to charge Allen.

The court decision also said newly disclosed information contained evidence casting doubt on Allen's memory and the amount of money paid to Kohring, and evidence that Allen's payments to Kohring "were made out of friendship and pity rather than a corrupt quid pro quo relationship."

While Thomas wrote that prosecutors, prior to trial, alerted Kohring to Allen's statement that he paid him partly out of pity, "the prosecution failed to disclose Allen's admission that he had never asked Kohring to do anything in exchange for cash or some other benefit."

"Had Kohring known that Allen made this and similar statements," Thomas wrote, "he could have undoubtedly used it at trial."

Endo said Kohring's team is grateful the court recognized there were violations but disappointed the whole matter wasn't just thrown out.

"The violations here were numerous, and we felt pretty egregious," she said..