ANCHORAGE — Now that she's apparently no lame duck, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she plans to continue her effort to hold top Justice Department officials accountable for dropping the teen sexual exploitation prosecution of former Veco Corp. chairman Bill Allen.
Murkowski described as "wimpy" and "unsatisfactory" a written response by the Justice Department to a critical letter she sent last summer demanding an answer about why the Justice Department shut down its case.
Her letter was written the day the Daily News reported on the decision by a top-level Justice Department official, who overruled at least two of his own prosecutors. Two Anchorage Police Department detectives said the case should have at least gone to a grand jury.
With her write-in victory clearing a key legal hurdle last week, Murkowski said she plans to grill top Justice Department officials during appropriations hearings or from her post on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
"I really want to have this on the public record," she said in a telephone interview last week from Washington.
One possible target of her questions: the attorney general himself, Eric Holder, when he presents the Justice Department budget this spring to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, where Murkowski serves.
Because the victim in the case was a Native Alaskan from a small Bush village, the Indian Affairs Committee, which is concerned with the exploitation of Native women, also has jurisdiction, she said.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment. Allen's attorney didn't respond to a request for comment.
Allen, 73, was once a powerful business and political figure in Alaska and served as the de facto spokesman for the oil industry. Now he's serving a three-year sentence at a federal prison in California for bribery and related tax charges. He pleaded guilty and was a key witness in the trials of two state legislators and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
Even as he maneuvered through the highest echelons of power in the Alaska, numerous witnesses, police and federal investigators said he also operated in some of the state's darkest corners, pursuing teenage girls, several as young as 15.
One of them, Paula Roberds, now 26, came forward several years ago and said that she was one of the 15-year-olds, and that Allen knew her age when he paid her for sex. When she was 16, she said, she moved to Seattle with her boyfriend, but that didn't stop Allen -- she said he flew her to Anchorage about five times, paying her thousands of dollars each time and putting her up in a hotel.
Anchorage detectives said they spent several years investigating her assertions and had corroborated much of her story. Working with a prosecutor from the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, they planned to present a case to a federal grand jury alleging Allen violated the federal Mann Act, which prohibits transporting a person across state lines for the purposes of sex, and has tough penalties when the person is a minor.
But in August, the Daily News reported that top officials in the Justice Department vetoed Allen's prosecution despite the recommendation by the prosecutor and his supervisor that the case go to a grand jury.
Murkowski said she was outraged by the decision.
"This guy had money and connections, so therefore we're not going to go after him, when he knew that he was violating all kinds of federal laws in terms of transporting her between states?" she said. "It was just reprehensible."
Of equal importance, Murkowski said, was the fact that Roberds was a Native from Goodnews Bay, and she fit into a pattern of exploited village girls and women in the city.
"Victimization of young Alaska Native women is not something that is, unfortunately, unusual," Murkowski said. "This situation with Paula Roberds was very high profile because of Bill Allen's role, but the fact of the matter is, we know that there are other young women, and unfortunately it would appear that so many of them are young Alaska Native women, who come in and fall prey to these individuals."
On Aug. 21, the day the Daily News story reported the decision to not prosecute, Murkowski fired off a two-page letter to Holder challenging the decision, especially in light of efforts to improve law enforcement in tribal lands.
"Is it mere coincidence that on the day before the President signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law, a woman from an Alaska Native village is told that the Justice Department will not prosecute a once powerful Alaskan, against whom career investigators and prosecutors believe they built a rock solid case, with absolutely no explanation?" she wrote.
She asked Holder to inquire into what happened and brief her staff with an answer.
Four days later, she lost the Republican primary to Joe Miller, and her attention shifted to her future in politics and then her write-in campaign. On Oct. 21, Ronald Welch, an assistant attorney general, replied in three-paragraph letter that justice department officials "appreciate your concerns" but couldn't provide any explanations, citing long-standing department policy governing the secrecy of investigations.
Murkowski said she wasn't surprised by Welch's letter, but she believed the department could explain more.
"We understand that the Department of Justice has that latitude (to not prosecute) but the letter itself was absolutely unsatisfactory," she said.
Meanwhile, the state's own investigation is continuing, though its resolution is unclear, said Anchorage Police Detective Michele Logan.
On Sept. 2, Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan said he was directing state prosecutors to review the evidence to see whether Allen could be charged under state law. The case was assigned to Paul Miovas, a cold-case prosecutor in the Office of Special Prosecutions in Appeals. He wouldn't comment on the status of the case.
Anchorage Police Sgt. Kevin Vandegriff, who initiated the investigation against Allen back in 2004 when he heard from other victims, said in earlier interviews that state prosecutors had declined to press charges in favor of federal prosecutors, primarily because the federal Mann Act best fit the facts of the case. There is no comparable state law.
Because the age of consent in Alaska is 16, state prosecutors would have to prove Roberds' assertion that she was 15 when she first had sex with Allen in order to charge Allen with sexual abuse of a minor. That would have occurred more than 10 years ago, and corroborating evidence, such as cell phone call records, would be hard to come by, Vandegriff said.
The federal law covers minors to 18. Logan said police obtained copies of credit card receipts showing Allen paid to fly Roberds to Anchorage at least three times in 2001, when she was 16. She and Vandegriff also found witnesses to those encounters, she said.
Logan said last week that she hoped Murkowski's restored status might shake some answers from the Justice Department about why prosecution was declined, and maybe even obtain a review of that decision.
"We all would like to know," Logan said. "She's kind of back, and she's also got a position of awe from fellow senators that she won a write-in campaign. I would love her to go back say, 'Hey, I'm still here, what's your answer,' and make them pay attention to her."