Under fire in Congress and under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, Alaska's senior U.S. senator, Republican Ted Stevens, came to Juneau on Monday to be among friends.
Stevens was welcomed with a standing ovation at the ANB Hall, where he spoke to members of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes.
"We do go back a long way," Stevens said, while ticking off issues in which he's worked with Alaska Natives. Those issues include the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, business preferences for Native corporations and funding for the Indian Health Service.
Stevens warned that federal rules that allow Alaska Native corporations to be treated as if they were small businesses when seeking government contracts are under fire. Current rules have helped them grow so they are no longer small businesses.
Those companies are now "full-fledged partners not only in our economy, but the global economy," he said.
The rules, called "8a" preferences, are at risk of repeal in Congress, he said.
"It's an uphill battle, and we need all the help we can get" to preserve the preferences, he said.
Sealaska, Southeast's regional corporation, has been a big user of 8a preferences, as have most other regional corporations and many village corporations.
Stevens was once one of the most powerful members of Congress, and used that power to earmark money for Alaska. Democratic control of Congress took away his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee and new criticism of earmarks have made them more difficult for anyone to obtain.
"It's just impossible right now to get an earmark," he said.
Compounding Stevens' difficulties have been ongoing federal corruption investigations. FBI agents last year served a search warrant on Stevens' Girdwood home, looking for links between Stevens and VECO Corp., an oilfield services company seeking influence with politicians. In addition, a convicted federal felon has claimed on the witness stand he bribed Stevens' son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens.
Ted Stevens has declined to discuss the federal investigation into his actions; Ben Stevens has denied any wrongdoing.
Stevens also stepped up criticism of environmental activists he said were crippling Southeast Alaska's economy, limiting logging, stopping new mines and targeting fishing in some places in the state.
"Extremism is going to cripple this state," he said.
The state's alcoholism problem, which Stevens said has been growing worse in recent years, stems from a lack of hope in villages, he said.
"The reason you don't have jobs is you can't cut trees anymore," he said. It's not just Southeast and the timber industry, he said.
"The whole state is without jobs," Stevens said.
Brad Fluetsch, an Alaska Native Brotherhood leader in Juneau, asked Stevens how people could convince Congress to help out villages in which there were no jobs.
"Our communities are dying," Fluetsch said.
Stevens said he was still working to bring help to Alaska, including working across party lines with his friend, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
"I can't legislate jobs - I can try to legislate opportunity," he said.
Stevens received a second standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at586-4816 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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