On Monday, Republican senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was convicted of seven felony charges related to false statements he made about accepting gifts from an oil company. Stevens is locked in a close race for reelection, and his guilty verdict may well hand a victory to his Democratic challenger, Anchorage mayor Mark Begich.
Stevens is appealing and insists he is innocent. Some of Stevens’s complaints about prosecutorial misconduct in the trial have merit. The government released a redacted interview with one of the trial’s star witnesses, Bill J. Allen, the former CEO of oil-field-services company VECO Corp., who along with another VECO executive has pleaded guilty to bribing Alaskan legislators. The prosecution later admitted that portions of the transcript should not have been redacted, including sections in which Allen contradicted himself on the central question of the trial — whether Stevens would have paid for the full $250,000 in home renovations and alleged gifts had he known he was not being billed for the full amount. According to the Los Angeles Times, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan stopped short of throwing the case out but was “visibly angry” and declared he had “no confidence” in the government’s ability to meet their obligations to the defendant or the court.
But Stevens has been convicted by a jury of his peers, and at the very least he exercised colossally poor judgment. The home renovation at the heart of the trial was especially curious. The contractors who did the work were told to send the invoices first to VECO, which then sent the bills to Stevens, who paid them out of a separate account set up for the project. Even if Stevens paid all the invoices sent from VECO in ignorance of the true cost, there is no logical explanation for such an arrangement. A U.S. senator has an obligation to avoid such a blatant appearance of corruption.
Prominent Republicans have remained largely silent on the issue of Stevens’s ethical lapses because they are desperately trying to cling to enough seats in the Senate to retain the filibuster, and with it a meaningful voice in legislation. But the Republican party has only itself to blame for being in the unenviable position of depending on the good name of Ted Stevens.
The charges against Stevens are not new. Republicans had ample opportunity to pressure Stevens to step aside, a course of action this magazine argued in favor of three months ago, to provide sufficient time for an untarnished Republican nominee to emerge from the state’s August 26 primary. That didn’t happen, and instead Stevens’s conviction is making headlines just eight days before the election. Even if he does somehow win re-election, Stevens should be prevailed upon by his Republican colleagues to resign immediately afterward.
Even before his conviction, Stevens had forged a career in the Senate — where he is known as “The King of Pork” and the architect of the Bridge to Nowhere — that is an embarrassment to a party that claims the mantle of fiscal conservatism. The party’s future may ultimately depend as much on regaining its ethical bearings as it does on retaining 41 seats in the Senate. Had Republicans urged Stevens to step aside months ago, those two goals would not be in conflict. Should Stevens’s conviction be instrumental in handing Senate Democrats a filibuster-proof majority, Republicans will have reaped what they have sown.