Outside editorial: Stevens' indictment: Giving to receive

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2008

This editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Welcome to the chalet of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

It has a new first floor, a handsome wrap-around deck, a tool cabinet loaded with new tools, and a professional Viking gas grill.

And all of it came courtesy of an oil-services company in Alaska that sought government help from Stevens, according to a seven-count federal indictment.

The indictment accuses Stevens of failing to report gifts of more than $250,000 as required on his annual Senate financial disclosure forms. Those gifts allegedly included free construction work on his house in Girdwood, Alaska, and an SUV for one of his children.

If Stevens ever puts up his home for sale, one wonders, will the arrogance convey?

The charges are a blow not just for Stevens and Republicans hoping to hold onto his seat, but for the Senate itself. Stevens is no back-bencher, as with other recently scandalized lawmakers such as Reps. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., and William Jefferson, D-La.

He is an institution in Washington.

Stevens, 84, is the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. For six years, he chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, controlling hundreds of billions of dollars. If the charges are proved, he will be just one more example of lawmakers who couldn't draw a line between serving the public and serving themselves.

Yet the clubby nature of the Senate produced little if any outrage. Republicans and Democrats alike spoke of their sadness, and how Stevens has been a wonderful champion for his state.

Yes, how can taxpayers in the lower 48 states ever forget his $400 million "bridge to nowhere," a boondoggle intended to link one Alaska island to another with 50 inhabitants? Or his $23 billion proposed military air-tanker lease deal that provoked needed opposition by Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee for president?

Stevens said he is innocent of the charges, but his initial denial on Tuesday was couched in legalese. "I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form," he said.

Reading the indictment, it's hard to believe that Stevens was unaware of the freebies being lavished on him by the now-defunct private company, Veco. He wrote thank-you notes to Veco employees who performed the contracting work and fixed his heating system.

The indictment alleges Stevens received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free labor.

Although prosecutors do not claim a direct quid pro quo, Stevens allegedly received these gifts while Veco was requesting various federal grants and contracts through his Senate office. The firm also sought Stevens' help to build a natural gas pipeline on Alaska's North Slope.

So often in recent years, lawmakers have preached about the importance of personal responsibility. With at least a dozen members of Congress indicted in the last five years, it's too bad so many are incapable of taking their own advice.

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