Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Former Alaska State Senator Ralph Seekins Reacts To VECO Scandal, Denies Involvement


Former Fairbanks Senator Ralph Seekins, one of the key players in last year’s oil and gas debates, said on Tuesday May 8th, 2007 that he was unaware of any efforts by executives of oil field services company VECO Corp. to bribe state lawmakers and that he never saw anyone “trying to buy votes.” Click HERE for the original story from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Seekins' name was briefly introduced into the mix by Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins. On May 4th, on this post on his Alaska Politics blog, operated under the auspices of the Anchorage Daily News, Hopkins speculated on the possibility that Seekins might have been the "Senator A" referenced in the indictment. However, Seekins told Hopkins that "I don't recall ever even having a phone conversation with Bill Allen (VECO CEO) when I was in the Legislature". However, in the subsequent charging documents on Bill Allen, "State Senator A" is described as a current member of the Senate who's served since 2000, and "State Senator B" is a former Senator who served from 2001-2006. The latter description better fits Ben Stevens, and the former description may fit John Cowdery. So even the mainstream media gets a bit confused over this complex case.

Click HERE to see the 10-page charging documents on Bill Allen in PDF format.

However, Seekins did tell the News-Miner that lawmakers faced “tremendous” pressure to act one way or another, particularly from industry and union lobbyists, and revealed that the pressure was sometimes strong enough to change lawmakers’ votes. “You just have to hope that legislators are strong enough that they’ll stand on principles and not on political blackmail,” he said.

Seekins, a Republican who was defeated by Democrat Joe Thomas last year after one term, said he was sometimes offered campaign support in exchange for help pushing a group’s agenda or threatened that he would lose support if he voted the wrong way.

Seekins received $4,500 from VECO executives and a VECO political action committee during his 2002 campaign and another $2,000 in December 2005. However, he said that even though he knew some of the VECO executives for a long time, he was never asked to do anything in return for the contributions. “I always considered a donation a donation,” he said. “It didn’t buy anything.” But once VECO's name first surfaced last summer in the Federal investigation involving state lawmakers, Seekins returned the 2005 VECO donations.

At the time, Seekins chaired the Senate Special Committee on Natural Gas Development, the lead Senate committee reviewing then-Gov. Frank Murkowski’s oil production tax and natural gas pipeline proposals. Seekins was perceived by many to be more agreeable than other members to some of Murkowski’s proposals. He was picked as chairman by then-Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, who matches the description of a senator implicated in VECO CEO Bill Allen’s plea agreement. Stevens largely supported Murkowski’s proposals.

Stevens could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but his attorney has said Stevens did nothing wrong. Stevens has not been charged with any crime, but his office was among those raided last year by FBI agents in connection with the current investigation.

Seekins described Stevens as “strong-willed” but motivated by his own beliefs. “I never thought there was anybody pulling the puppet strings,” he said, adding that Stevens at times pushed changes opposed by the oil industry. Seekins also stated his own independence as chairman of the Senate special committee. “No one told me what to do,” he said. “I set the rules and I allowed everyone the opportunity — ad nauseam — to bring amendments, to bring proposals, to discuss issues … And those were the terms that I accepted the position with.”

He said Stevens was “disgusted” at him last year when he didn’t vote the way Stevens hoped on the oil tax bill. “He was really angry at me,” Seekins said. “He wouldn’t talk to me for 10 days.”

Commentary: Several factors may have contributed towards suspicion initially pointing at Ralph Seekins.

First, the fact that the Anchorage Daily News initially stated that the indictment described "Senator A" as a former state senator who had stepped down after 2008, for one reason or another. Only three former state senators - Gretchen Guess and Ben Stevens being the other two - fit the description. This has since been corrected - Seekins fits none of the profiles described in the Bill Allen charging documents.

Second, in 2006, Seekins introduced two very unpopular ethics reform bills. One bill would have imposed a $5,000 penalty on anyone who disclosed information about an ethics complaint in progress against a legislator or legislative staffer. The other bill would have imposed the same penalty against anyone disclosing the same information involving an administrative employee. While the intent was actually commendable - to discourage frivolous complaints and keep innocent people from being "tried in the media" before conclusion of an official committee investigation - the penalty was widely considered to be too draconian and the potential effect on free speech too chilling. This legislation created the impression that Seekins was somewhat of a officious snob, favoring the rich.

And finally, the magnitude of Seekins' defeat in the November elections caused pundits to wonder if Fairbanks voters may have instinctively sensed something amiss and reflected their unease at the ballot box. Democrat Joe Thomas didn't merely "defeat" him; he clobbered Seekins by nearly 20 percentage points. Not only is it highly unusual for an incumbent to suffer such a loss, but the only incumbent Alaskan politician to suffer a worse defeat in 2006, former Governor Frank Murkowski, didn't even make it past the August primary. Of course, it can't all be blamed on the ethics bill. Voters also remembered that in May 2004, Seekins was one of only five senators voting in favor of then-Gov. Murkowski's proposal to tap Permanent Fund earnings to help pay for state government (the State Senate rejected the proposal 15-5). This vote didn't play well in tax-skittish Fairbanks. In addition, a website highly critical of Seekins revealed that he attempted to introduce legislation in April 2006 that would have shielded Flint Hills Resources from millions of dollars in back payments due to a retroactive price adjustment in its contract to buy royalty oil. Flint Hills claimed at the time that it had already postponed or canceled proposed projects at Alaska's largest refinery because of the back payments.

In the final analysis, it appears Ralph Seekins lost because he was perceived as a snob rather than as a crook. So, unless subsequent evidence points in his direction, Ralph Seekins shouldn't be considered a part of the VECO scandal simply because he wasn't exactly the most likeable and sensitive person ever to serve in the Alaska Senate.

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