The long-running political corruption probe that saw 11 lawmakers, lobbyists and government staffers convicted in Alaska wound up this week, along with its stories of drunken hotel meetings, sleazy bribery come-ons, and sex-for-drug deals with underage girls. For the first time in years, Alaskans will wake up with no tawdry political drama to relish on the front page.
One person who will be happy to see the end of it is Bruce Weyhrauch, a Juneau attorney and former member of the state House of Representatives who spent four years fighting extortion and bribery charges — only to see the legal footings of the case against him turn to quicksand and evaporate, without much fanfare, into a minor misdemeanor charge.
The saga didn’t end, though, until after Weyhrauch had mortgaged his house, cashed out his retirement, and appealed to his supporters to pay an estimated $500,000 in legal fees. The former Eagle Scout went from being a popular lawyer who originally came to Alaska to work in a salmon hatchery, to someone people in Juneau would cross the street to avoid.
Weyhrauch wasn’t completely beyond reproach, his lawyers admit. The then-lawmaker was in the thick of things during the oil tax bill negotiations that were at the center of the corruption case, talking with Bill Allen, president of Veco Corp., the oil services company at the center of the probe. He exercised poor judgment in sending Veco a letter soliciting legal business right at the time the company was pushing the tax bill, while he was still in office.
But his lawyers demonstrated that this was one of two dozen identical letters Weyhrauch, who wasn’t running for reelection and needed work, had sent out to many companies, not just Veco. Did he take a bribe? Nobody alleged any money had changed hands, and if it didn’t, the defense counsel wanted to know, why was he indicted for bribery and extortion?
“Weyhrauch was less guilty than any of them,” said state Rep. Mike Hawker in an interview, jokingly pronouncing himself a member of the “Corrupt Bastards Club” of legislators who took campaign money from Veco. “But what he was facing was the absolutely unbridled power of the federal government.”
Today, Weyhrauch has the air of a haunted man. His easy smile has given way to a wary look. He tends to sit at the side of a room and listen to others talk.
“I’ve been in the desert,” he said in his Juneau law offices not long after his misdemeanor plea. He received a three-month suspended sentence and a $1,000 fine, but was allowed to keep his law license.
“I’d love to sit on a mountain and try to understand. People say, ‘Why me?’ when they get cancer. Why me, when I get prosecuted? I’m supposed to know this guy Bill Allen is corrupt? I was as shocked as anyone else to see all that stuff that was going on.”
Even after it was over, Judge Keith Levy wasn’t ready to offer absolution to Weyhrauch. The judge issued a reproval along with the fine. “We’re entitled to know the identity of those who make expenditures in efforts to have influence,” the judge said. “It’s the violation of a trust, and when that trust is violated, the democratic process is harmed, and I don’t think that’s hyperbole.”
Prosecutors said Weyhrauch had not only sent the solicitation letter to Veco, but also met with Veco executives, ostensibly about a job. Federal agents monitored the meeting, and said Weyhrauch promised to “shoehorn” himself into a meeting of legislators talking about the oil tax bill and report back. It was also Weyhrauch, they said, who proposed that the state House of Representatives adjourn before a vote that would have triggered an additional tax on oil producers.
It was easily explainable, in Weyhrauch’s view: He believed in the tax bill as much as Veco did. Oil producers on the North Slope, he said, had made it clear it was the only way they were going to agree to build a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline.
“This was the most expensive private-sector project in the world. And you know, people aren’t going to develop oil and gas resources in Alaska because we like them, or they like us. They’re going to do it because they want to make money,” Weyhrauch said. “One of the main reasons I ran for the Legislature was to get some economic certainty for our future — what every one of us wants is for our children to be able to come back and work here. But it’s not going to happen if there’s no jobs.”
On a pretrial motion that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the prosecution argued that even if money hadn’t changed hands, by not reporting his solicitation Weyhrauch was guilty of depriving his constituents of the “honest services” they were entitled to. But the prosecution lost on that one. After years of legal motions and expensive trial preparation, prosecutors were left without a viable theory to take a felony case to trial.
Defense lawyers Ray Brown and Doug Pope said the prosecution team offered Weyhrauch the chance to avoid a trial by pleading guilty to a felony charge. The lawyers were incensed. In their view, Weyhrauch had done nothing wrong, and yet had spent four years of his life fighting the ruinous power of a federal indictment.
“I said, ‘If I have to try this case for free, we’re not pleading Bruce Weyhrauch to a felony,’” Brown said.
Yet when prosecutors agreed to consider a misdemeanor plea, there was no federal statute that seemed to apply — Weyhrauch didn’t feel he had committed any of the crimes on the books.
Pope started searching the codes himself, and found a state law that made it a misdemeanor to meet with lobbyists not registered with the state. It was highly unusual to bring a state crime to bear in federal court, but when he pointed it out to the federal prosecution team, they agreed.
“Four thousand wiretaps, 600 hours of video surveillance, 15,000 pages of documents. In all of that, they had evidence that he met with two unregistered lobbyists and he had reason to believe that they might not be registered, and they should have been. That’s all the evidence they ever had. And they put Bruce and [his wife] LuAnn through hell over it,” Pope said.
“I mean, I thought this crime up! They didn’t think it up! It took me 10 days to come up with a crime that there actually was evidence to support, because they just plain refused to dismiss the indictment.”
Prosecutors for the Justice Department have declined to discuss Weyhrauch’s case in detail beyond their court pleadings. Weyhrauch said he agreed to the plea because it was better than the prospect of spending thousands of dollars more going through a trial.
“No one in this country should have to have gone through what I have gone through,” Weyhrauch told reporters after the sentencing hearing. “What the federal government has done to me, they could do to anyone.”
That’s the name of the book he’s writing: “It Could Happen to You.”