Below is today’s column in Roll Call where I discuss the Stevens conviction and the dismal state of the Alaskan delegation. The voters in Alaska will have a increasingly difficult time claiming to espouse “small town values” and “law and order politics” when they routinely reelect corrupt politicians.
There is nothing like a criminal conviction to concentrate the minds and change the conduct of people. Indeed, prosecutors will often “hoist the wretch” in a criminal case to deter others.
The exception may be the corruption conviction of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The two target audiences for this particular penological lesson – Congress and the Alaskan people – appear entirely resistant to such outside influences.
Stevens’ conviction may appear an utter disgrace to most people. Yet an astonishing number of Alaskans and colleagues remain robotically loyal to Stevens, who has long bragged that people feared his wrath and curried his favor.
For his part, Stevens (who this week called on his constituents and colleagues to “stand with me”) is committed to standing for re-election next week and fails to see why a criminal conviction would be viewed as a barrier in Alaska.
The incredible thing is that he might be right.
Senators and Alaskans have become addicted to the gross earmark abuse personified by Stevens. Notably, even after his indictment, there were few calls for Stevens to be cast out from the state or the Senate. Instead, he made it through the primary and was embraced by colleagues who denied his flagrantly unethical record.
For many years, I have been one of Stevens’ most vocal critics.
For me, the most remarkable aspect of his conviction on seven criminal counts was that he was ultimately nailed for relatively small stuff.
For years, Stevens has long been viewed by critics as virtually walking the halls of Congress with a credit card machine on his belt. Yet, it was his failure to report gifts that earned him the long-anticipated criminal record.
The blame for the checkered career of Stevens is easy to assign. First and foremost, let’s begin with the Alaskan people.
Not all Alaskans, of course, just those who continued in election after election to return him to Congress despite years of openly unethical practices.
It is time for the country to be blunt with Alaska. It should not take an actual incarceration to clean up your Congressional delegation. The Alaskan delegation has long been an ethical quagmire. The question is why so many Alaskans, including self-described “law-and-order” voters, refused to heed years of scandals involving Stevens and his family.
The answer, it seems, is greed. Stevens brought pork home to Alaska by the barrelful, and voters did not seem to mind if he enriched himself and his family along the way.
Stevens delivered 1,452 pork-barrel projects worth $3.4 billion from 1995 to 2008. By looking the other way during decades of scandals, Alaska in 2006 raked in $611 per Alaskan in federal funds when the national average was $19 per citizen.
Many Alaskans simply do not seem to object to flagrant corruption among their elected officials. Before the recent investigation, various Alaskan legislators in Juneau wore baseball caps with the initials “CBC,” standing for “Corrupt Bastards Club.”
Stevens’ colleague in the House, GOP Rep. Don Young (the other legislator pushing for the “Bridge to Nowhere”) has also been a repeated subject of charges of unethical conduct. The Senate recently took the unprecedented step of calling for an investigation of his possible criminal conduct when he changed the words of an appropriations bill after it was passed by his colleagues.
Stevens, however, always put the rest of the Alaskan delegation to shame.
Stevens came to the Senate with modest means, particularly after heavy losses in the 1980s in a crab fishing boat venture.
In 1997, according to the Los Angeles Times, Stevens decided to get “serious about making money” and contacted lobbyists about possible deals.
One of the first to step forward was real estate developer Jonathan Rubini, who arranged for Stevens to get into a deal in which he turned $50,000 into as much as $1.5 million. Stevens was the only investor not liable for any debts in the deal.
In the meantime, Stevens muscled through a $450 million contract for Rubini from the military, despite the view of Air Force officials that Rubini “lacked capacity and adequate funding.” Since he made his pledge to make some real money in 1997, Stevens has become a multimillionaire.
Even while he was under investigation, Stevens was undeterred in working for friends and associates.
In 2005, Stevens forced through an earmark of $1.6 million that allegedly guaranteed the purchase of property by his former aide, Trevor McCabe, an Anchorage lobbyist. Federal officials had previously rejected efforts by McCabe to develop the property as a visitor center and office complex.
The Stevens family seems to have followed the patriarchal lead. In the VECO investigation that led to Stevens’ recent indictment, his son, Ben Stevens, reportedly received $243,250 for consulting fees that were allegedly payoffs for favors in the Alaska legislature. Stevens’ wife was given a high-paying lobbying job on appropriations – when her husband chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.
While most people in the country were repelled by his securing hundreds of millions of dollars for the Bridge to Nowhere, Stevens virtually bragged that he could tap the country for billions at will.
Indeed, in one tape from his trial, Stevens cavalierly spoke of the possibility that he and his close friend might “have to spend a little time in jail” for his dealings. It was like listening to Tony Soprano at the Bada Bing club boosting the spirits of his crew.
Of course, Alaskans are not unique. I grew up in Chicago under the Daley machine, where an honest politician was someone who “once bought, stayed bought.”
There are recent examples of voters returning people like Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) and former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to office.
Democratic and Republican Members showed little interest in Stevens’ use of the federal treasury like a piggy bank for himself and his state. When the media exposed the Bridge to Nowhere, his colleagues proclaimed that they had reached an “ethical resolution” that only Senators could justify: killing the bridge but allowing Alaskans to keep the money.
Ultimately, of course, it was the Alaskan people who gave the country Ted Stevens. Corruption is like pollution. You may want to pollute your own state in deals with industry. However, when pollution and corruption become transboundary problems, it becomes a national problem.
Since neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to oppose corrupt colleagues, it is up to every voter to stop the problem at its source. When the foreman this week read guilty seven times, many of us hoped that a few Alaskans might have heard the mantra as more than simply an indictment of Stevens alone.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington Law School and a national columnist. He has a daily blog at jonathanturley.org.
Roll Call: October 30, 2008