WASHINGTON - Republican senators facing reelection challenges sought to insulate themselves from indicted Sen. Ted Stevens Wednesday by promising to donate to charity tens of thousands of dollars they received from the veteran Alaska lawmaker's political action committee.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the Republican Conference, led the way, with each disclosing that he'd relinquish $10,000 in campaign donations from Stevens' Northern Lights PAC.
Minnesota freshman Sen. Norm Coleman, who's fighting to win reelection against comedian-turned-politician Al Franken, decided to give away $20,000 that his campaign and his own leadership PAC got from Stevens' PAC.
The GOP senators acted a day after Stevens was indicted on charges of lying to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts from VECO Corp., a former Alaska oil services company at the center of a public corruption scandal that already has netted seven criminal convictions.
North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole acted quickly on Tuesday, announcing that she'd give $10,000 from Stevens' PAC to a campaign to fight hunger.
Freshman Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire made a similar decision on Wednesday as his Democratic rival, former governor Jeanne Shaheen, issued a press release charging that his reelection campaign was funded by $45,000 in "tainted" cash from Stevens and another $65,000 that the Alaska senator raised on his behalf.
Meantime, the Republican Party of Alaska Wednesday disclosed that it donated $34,500 it received from VECO executives to a half dozen Alaska-based charities. The party received more than $56,000 in donations from the company between 1997 and 2004, but spokesman McHugh Pierre said that more than $20,000 of those funds had been spent when the corruption scandal became public in 2006.
The state party donated the money, Pierre told McClatchy, because, "We wanted to make sure that people understand that we were not part of this corruption scandal."
Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, one of Stevens' closest friends, however, said he wouldn't give away any of the $13,000 he received from VECO executives. He said he didn't solicit the contributions, and "to my knowledge they were not made illegally."
VECO executives gave at least $35,000 to Stevens' PAC in recent years, Federal Election Commission records show. Most of it came from former VECO CEO Bill Allen, who pled guilty last year to making illicit payments to Alaska politicians and allegedly arranged for free renovation work on Stevens' house in Girdwood. In all, VECO employees made more than $600,000 in political contributions between 1993 and 2007, virtually all of it to Republicans.
In their effort to distance themselves from Stevens and VECO, the Republican senators are giving away more money than the company's employees gave to Stevens' Northern Lights PAC.
Republican senators, however, rejected calls to surrender money they received in previous election cycles from Stevens' PAC, which the GOP elder statesman routinely used to support his colleagues' campaigns.
Numerous Republican legislators last year donated to charities campaign money they received from Allen and other VECO executives. But legislators Wednesday continued to try to draw an array of ethical lines while trying to avoid any taint from the charges against Stevens.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Stevens' Alaska Republican colleague, received $41,250 from VECO executives for her victorious 2003-2004 campaign. Last year, she donated to charity $8,000 in donations from Allen and former VECO vice president Richard Smith, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges last year, but kept donations from other VECO executives.
Her spokesman, Mike Brumas, said Wednesday that to give away donations from other VECO employees would "impugn the integrity of a lot of good Alaskans."
Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said the Minnesota senator is rejecting Democrats' calls that he donate to charity an amount equal to the $6,000 that his campaign got from Allen, Smith and two other VECO executives on July 9, 2002, because that money "has been spent and is not an issue."
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who also won election in 2002, got $6,000 from the same VECO execs three days before Coleman received his checks. Thune isn't returning those funds because he "has not received any contributions from these individuals since being elected to the Senate," spokesman Kyle Downey said.
Spokespersons for Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr acknowledged that each got $6,000 from VECO executives in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, but both said they couldn't donate the money to charity because it's already been spent.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, took a more cautious tone toward the $4,000 he received from VECO executives in 2004 and the $5,000 he got from Stevens' PAC in 2006. His office said that that Specter "is looking at the specifics of the criminal charges against the VECO executives before deciding what action is appropriate."
As for the PAC money from Stevens, Specter's office said he'd keep it "as long as there is a constitutional presumption of innocence."