A Petty Ending to Stevens’ Career
Friday, November 21, 2008 at 6:01 am
In the end, failing to properly fill out a form ended the career of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), one of the most powerful senators in U.S. history — famous, or maybe infamous, for wide-ranging scandals involving money, family and power.
The usually gruff and even cantankerous Stevens, 85, gave a gracious farewell speech on the floor of the Senate Thursday morning, the day after he learned he had narrowly lost his seat to Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
“I don’t have any rear-view mirror, I look only forward,” Stevens said during his speech. “And I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me.”
Stevens was referring to his recent conviction on seven felony counts of failing to list gifts worth $250,000 from the Alaska oil services firm, Veco Corp., on his Senate disclosure forms. The gifts ranged from a high-tech massage chair, to home repairs and overseeing the renovation of his Girdwood, Alaska, home.
The seven counts, though, did not include underlying crimes of corruption or bribery. Stevens was not accused of illegally taking cash or presents. Nor did the prosecution ever allege that Stevens used his power to deliver favors to Veco. Instead, the conviction hinged solely on a technical requirement.
Many in Alaska see the situation as a small, petty end to the career of a man marred with far more serious scandals, which encompassed his family, friends, money and power. The largest, most flagrant scandals include funneling money to Alaska seafood companies through his son on the same companies’ payrolls; making hundreds of thousands of dollars in suspect land deals, and breaking federal lobbying laws to help shepherd Alaska into statehood in the 1950s.
Stevens’ conviction didn’t stop many Alaskans, nearly half of all voters, to support him at the polls just eight days after the jury’s decision. At campaign stops Stevens told voters that the charges were technical, even nit-picky.
It’s not surprising that such a message resonated with many Alaskans, according to a professor of history at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, Steven Haycox. The far-away trial in Washington seemed disconnected from Alaska life.
“They see these particular laws as essentially technical laws,” Haycox said. “This is not a guy who went out and sought $250,000 in gifts.”
Even the underlying accusation that Stevens accepted gifts looked petty to some who have followed Stevens’ worst moments over the last 40 years.
The house remodeling, which was the biggest gift Stevens neglected to disclose, did not create a remarkable home. This reporter originally drove right by when looking for it in Stevens’ small mountain town this September. Discovering it on a second pass, the overall size of the two-story home made it seem like a cozy chalet, not a Rep. Duke Cunningham-style mansion.
“It was the rinky-dink stuff,” said former Sen. Mike Gravel, who was Alaska’s junior senator under Stevens in the 1970s. “I don’t know of a better word or how to say it. It’s rinky-dink.”
One of the more flagrant Stevens scandals involved his son, Ben Stevens, who is now under federal investigation for his ties to Veco while serving as Alaska Senate president.
In 2003, Stevens allocated federal money to set up the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, which would later hand out about $29 million in federal grants to seafood companies to promote their industry. Stevens’ son was appointed by the state to head the body, with his father’s endorsement.
At the same time that the younger Stevens was handing out grant money, he was also getting money from some of the companies applying for the grants, which were paying him tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees. According to his state Senate disclosure forms, Stevens pocketed $250,000 in fees from the seafood companies.
Some of the grants dolled out have come under scrutiny, like the $500,000 given to Alaska Airlines to paint a Boeing 737 to look like a wild salmon. The nicknamed “Salmon-30-Salmon” was meant to promote the fishing industry, which the airline is a part of, since it hauls millions of pounds of fish out of the state every year.
When news broke that a federal grand jury in Seattle subpoenaed several seafood companies that fish off the coast of Alaska, it looked like the scandal would catch up with at least one of the Stevens.
“This is the equivalent of Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion,” said Stephen Taufen, a former seafood industry accountant and manager turned whistleblower. “What they got Ted on was arm wrestling with pinky fingers. Will the real fight come out?”
Taufen is also a strong critic of Stevens’ fishing policy in state.
Stevens was not a wealthy man until he took part in a series of lucrative investments in the 1990s.
In 1998, he went in on a land deal with an Alaska real-estate developer, Bob Penney, who turned a $15,000 investment into $150,000 for Stevens by 2004. That year, Penney told the Anchorage Daily News that he brought Stevens in on the Utah deal out of “appreciation for all he’s done for Alaska and the country.”
Penney lives on the Kenai River in Alaska, where he hosted an annual fund-raising event for Stevens that brought heads of defense corporations and lobbyists together to fish, drink, smoke fine cigars and spend a few private minutes with Stevens on the water.
Stevens steered millions in earmarks to Penney’s sports fishermen group that seeks to keep the river stocked with salmon for their sport, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and biologists.
Even in Stevens’ early days in public service, he was involved in scandals that might have ended a lesser politician’s career.
In 1956, Stevens, was assigned to a team, called the legislative council, that would staff the Interior Dept.’s involvement in the law to grant Alaska statehood.
Stevens hung a sign on his office door at Interior that read “Alaska Headquarters.” The sign, and his enthusiasm for the territory, earned him the title “Mr. Alaska,” according to the book “Take My Land Take My Life,” a history of Alaska’s early statehood days.
Stevens’ spirited display of support for statehood soon turned into a concerted lobbying effort on tax-payer time and with government resources. He pushed to hire Marilyn Atwood, the daughter of the chair of a lobbying organization working on getting Alaska statehood rights.
Atwood and Stevens ran a lobbying shop directly out of Interior. Atwood paired members of Congress with Alaskans they shared common to gain support for the statehood movement.
“We were lobbying from the executive branch,” Stevens said 20 years later, in 1977, “and there’s been a statute against that for a long time.”
In his final speech on the floor, Stevens didn’t mention the specifics of any of his scandalous moments. He just hopes for vindication.
He also wished the rest of his delegation well and also for Begich — who now takes the baton.
“This is the last frontier,” Stevens said. “and I also pray for my successor’s success, as he joins in that effort.”
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