Politics & Policy

From Bridge to Troubled Water

One of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’s most memorable moments of the last few years came during the Senate fight over the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” In 2005, when Sen. Tom Coburn introduced a measure that would have redirected the money Stevens had earmarked for the bridge to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, Stevens gave an apoplectic speech on the Senate floor in which he threatened to resign if the Senate passed the measure. It was the nation’s loss that the Senate voted the measure down, simultaneously missing two opportunities.

Now that a grand jury has indicted Stevens on seven counts of making false statements, it is time for him to make good on his threat. Stevens is of course innocent until proven guilty of the crimes with which he is charged. But even if he committed no crime, the facts that have emerged over the course of the federal investigation into his personal finances are damning enough on their own. The indictment was just the last straw.

The facts are these: In 2000, Stevens ordered an extensive home-improvement project that nearly doubled the size of his house. The contractors who did the work were told to send the invoices first to VECO Corp., an oil-field-services company whose two top executives have pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators. VECO then sent the bills to Stevens, which he paid out of a separate account set up for the project. Even if VECO sent Stevens all the invoices it received (and that remains an open question), there is no question that Stevens involved himself in a shadowy financial arrangement with a company known for its corrupt practices.

The indictment alleges that VECO employees did pay for parts of the renovation. It presents evidence that they did so and that Stevens knew they did. In addition, the indictment names other gifts Stevens allegedly received from VECO and then failed to disclose, such as furniture, cars, and a Viking gas grill. Stevens is accused of taking gifts worth more than $250,000 from VECO, which he did not list on his Senate Financial Disclosure Forms. The indictment alleges that in failing to do so, Stevens broke the law.

From a legal standpoint, Stevens deserves the benefit of the doubt — but not from an ethical standpoint. VECO had substantial business before Congress, and Stevens used his influence to benefit the company. Specifically, he made sure that federal job-training funds went to train Russian oil-field workers for VECO. Stevens’s close relationship with VECO — even if it wasn’t as close as prosecutors allege — renders such behavior ethically out-of-bounds. Stevens should have known better.

His situation is complicated by his well-deserved reputation as one of the worst pork-barrel spenders in Congress. Stevens is notorious for his ability to secure earmarks for his home state. It is largely because of Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, that Alaska has ranked in the top ten in per-capita federal spending since 1981. It might be easier to count the public buildings in Alaska that aren’t named after him or his fellow porker, Alaska’s sole representative in the House, Don Young.

That the two men are Republicans has been a source of consternation to fiscal conservatives in the party. Conservatives have cheered the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who is challenging Young in the Republican primary. Unfortunately, no such strong contender has emerged for Stevens’s seat on the Republican side. Anchorage mayor Mark Begich will contest the seat for the Democrats, who see it as a potential pick-up.

The question is not whether Stevens should resign, but whether he should resign now or after Alaska’s August 26 primary. If he steps aside now, the nomination will go to one of the six relatively unknown Republicans who are registered to run in the primary. The deadline for registration has passed, so it is too late for the party to field a stronger contender. If, however, Stevens won the primary and then stepped aside, the party could replace him with a better candidate.

To us, such political calculations are subordinate to the fact that Stevens has disgraced himself and his office. If he steps aside now, the politics will take care of themselves. The eventual nominee will have distinguished himself by winning an open and competitive primary. A party appointment would look calculated and unprincipled, and the candidate would be weaker for it. Stevens should allow the voters to pick his replacement. He should resign, and the sooner the better.

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