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Appeals court overturns Alaska lawmaker's conviction

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday threw out the corruption conviction of a former Alaska legislator who was videotaped taking cash from an oil-services executive.

Republican Vic Kohring of Wasilla, convicted in 2007 of accepting and soliciting bribes from executives heading the Alaska oil services company VECO Corp., was unfairly denied access to information that might have helped him mount a defense, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The appeals court ordered that Kohring be given a new trial.

Kohring's case is related to that of former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, convicted in 2008 of concealing gifts from VECO Chief Executive Bill Allen and others.

Stevens' conviction was later overturned and the indictment dismissed after the Obama administration concluded that prosecutors in that case had withheld important evidence.

Allen, who is currently in federal prison, has confessed to bribing several Alaska politicians over the past years. He and Rick Smith, a former vice president at VECO who is also serving a prison term, pleaded guilty in the case and provided much of the prosecution testimony against the charged politicians.

Kohring was one of 12 people charged in the wide-ranging investigation and one of three former state legislators convicted at trial.

Along with former Alaska House Speaker Pete Kott, also a Republican, Kohring was accused of seeking and accepting money from the VECO figures in exchange for industry-friendly actions on an oil-tax rewrite that passed in 2006.

After the charges against Stevens were dropped in 2009, the Justice Department turned over thousands of pages of information to the Kohring and Kott defense teams.

Those documents detailed Allen's memory problems and his efforts to fight off criminal charges involving sexual exploitation of teenage girls, as well as details of a bout Smith had with depression.

"The government clearly should have disclosed a substantial amount of the information in question," the 9th Circuit said in its ruling.

Much of the case against Kohring was mounted with evidence gathered from secretly taped conversations and interactions in a hotel suite in Juneau.

There, Kohring pleaded with Allen former VECO vice president Rick Smith to sway state legislators to help him with his financial difficulties, including a $17,000 credit card debt.

Allen was once among Alaska's most powerful figures. He headed the state's biggest oil-services company and was a major player in Republican politics.

After Allen's and Smith's arrests, VECO was sold to CH2M Hill.

In his 2007 plea agreement and in court testimony, Allen named several officials he said he bribed, including Stevens and his son, former Alaska state Senate President Ben Stevens, who was a paid VECO consultant at the same time he served in the legislature.

Allen described that consultant post as a no-show job, in exchange for state policy actions favorable to VECO.

Senator Stevens died in an aircraft crash last August. No charges have been filed against his son.

The Alaska corruption scandal rocked state politics and factored in Governor Sarah Palin's political rise. Palin ran her 2006 gubernatorial campaign largely on an anti-corruption, anti-"Big Oil" platform.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Tim Gaynor)