Week of 8.1.08
Inside the Scandal
This Week: Alaska: The Senator and the Oil Man | Inside the Scandal | Big Oil, Big Influence | Timeline: Alaska Corruption Scandal | TranscriptQ&A with Alaska Public Radio Reporter David Shurtleff
This interview was conducted in November 2007, when NOW first investigated the connection between VECO and Alaskan lawmakers.
NOW talked to David Shurtleff, a reporter with the Alaska Public Radio Network, to learn more about the wheeling and dealing going on between VECO—an oil services company—and Alaska state lawmakers. While the investigation has thus far been limited to the Alaska State Legislature, he said some expect the investigation to reach the highest levels of government. His coverage of the Alaska corruption trials has also been featured on National Public Radio.
NOW: Were you surprised by the content of the FBI tapes of Bill Allen making deals with Alaska state lawmakers in a hotel in Juneau?
David Shurtleff: You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn't at least partially stunned by what was on the FBI surveillance tapes and videos. While this investigation has exposed corruption within Alaska politics, it has also given us an insider's look at the world of backroom wheeling and dealing that has become part of the American political process. It's certainly not pretty.
Imagine witnessing some of the most powerful people in your state accept bribes. Even more appalling was how these people acted when they thought no one else was watching: extreme drunkenness, sexism, back-stabbing, over-the-top use of profanity. You really get the sense that these politicians felt invincible.
NOW: A recent Washington Post article on the Allen scandal mentioned that an Anchorage coffeehouse now sells "Corrupt Bastards Coffee," the name Allen and some of the lawmakers involved gave themselves. Is this indicative of how widespread public disgust is over this scandal?
DS: Alaskans are embarrassed by the whole ordeal, though I think the initial disappointment has passed most people by. People here are coming to terms with the scandal and are now able to even have some fun with it. I think the coffee name probably reflects a bit of good marketing or self-deprecating humor rather than widespread disgust. People here want to move on, but yes, they are aghast.
NOW: Are you conditioned to look for the taint of oil money in state politics? Is that something most political reporters are sensitive to, or has the VECO story brought the issue to the surface?
DS: Oil has been the largest industry in Alaska for decades. Pressure from Big Oil has always been there, but it's hard to pinpoint when their influence began to cross the line. VECO had been fined in the past for making illegal contributions, but no one in the oil business had ever faced actual criminal charges until the current investigation.
People had suspected the illegal activity for years, but there was really no way to prove it. There were whispers, but how can you report something without hard evidence? That's where the FBI came in.
NOW: Has this scandal deepened Alaska residents' skepticism about politicians?
DS: Without a doubt. There has always been a bit of a Libertarian-streak in many Alaskans, and this scandal has only deepened the divide between politicians and the public. These politicians were selling their votes on matters that affect every Alaskan and their resources. A lot of people feel betrayed, and they should.
NOW: What do you think needs to be done to restore people's faith in elected officials?
DS: My view is that things are already moving in the right direction. Alaskans wish it could be moving faster, but most people have faith that the federal probe will eventually expose all of the corrupt individuals and put them in prison.
Ultimately, some people will never heal, but I think the majority of Alaskans will be able to put this behind them once the federal investigation is completed. They need to see these besmirched politicians forced to pay the price.
NOW: How might Alaska's sole congressman Don Young be connected to this story?
DS: Personally, I haven't seen enough to believe that Don Young is connected to this investigation. VECO was certainly a massive contributor to the congressman for decades, but there hasn't been any evidence (yet) that shows Young ever accepted anything illegal from the company. Nor, did the VECO executives plead guilty to bribing any members of Alaska's congressional delegation.
"You really get the sense that these politicians felt invincible."
A few fundraisers put on by VECO appear questionable, but Young's Federal Election Commission reports show that he has paid back the company for those expenses. The FEC reports also show, however, that Young has spent nearly $500,000 on legal fees in the last year. What he's preparing to defend himself against is anyone's guess. There are still many, many unknowns.
NOW: What other Members of Congress do you think we may see implicated in this story as the investigation continues?
DS: It's impossible to say. Some expect the investigation to reach the highest levels of government, while others believe it's limited to the Alaska State Legislature (which it has been thus far). Certainly, Sen. Ted Stevens is involved somehow, but whether he will actually be charged with anything remains to be seen.
To say any other members of Congress should be concerned at this point would be pure conjecture, though it wouldn't surprise me one bit.
APOC forges ahead with investigation
Kohring trial ends first week with VECO's Bill Allen on the stand
Secret video and audio evidence presented to Kohring jury
APOC probing VECO elections influence
Legislators Gara and French asking ethical questions of major oil companies
Public interest organization probing relations between VECO and Alaska legislators
AP: Ted Stevens secretly taped in call with Bill Allen
Watchdogs: Drop Stevens from committees now; Senators: Let investigation proceed
Ted Stevens releases personal financial data amidst ethics questions