My Turn: Even the mighty are at risk

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2008

It was Abraham Lincoln who said something to the effect that if you want to test a man's integrity then give him power. Well, we have run that test and found plenty of failures.

Seven state legislators are in jail, under indictment or under heavy suspicion. And now, it is the Sen. Ted Stevens' indictment. Does anybody see a thread here? It was 1996 when the voters threw out the D's in Congress after a 40-year reign. It looks like the R's will face the same music in 2008.

I have worked on issues with and against Stevens. His reputation is well-known and deserved: pro-Alaska, conservative, fiercely partisan, feisty and ill-tempered. By any measure he is a smart, skilled and wily politician. That is why it is difficult to understand that "alleged felon" is part of the lexicon.

On the other hand, his long and successful career is counterintuitive to the idea that he just did not know. It is commonly known that ignorance of the law is no defense. So innocence based on not being aware may not alter the one way trip out of office - a sad day for Alaska.

Surprisingly small bribes have put three sitting state legislators behind bars and another two under indictment. Perhaps the bribes appear small because that is all the Justice Department needs to prove. But in contrast, the alleged gifts that Stevens failed to disclose are worth considerably more - more than $250,000. That is about double the value that Stevens paid for "all" the invoices he received.

Stevens' awareness should have been even keener since he was dealing with well-known political contributors and constituents. Time and time again it appears that clear boundaries become gray or non-existent as incumbents cling to power.

Unfortunately this is the second time in recent history that Stevens should have known better. In 2005 Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill. The bill came out of Stevens' Appropriations Committee, which he chaired. It was a monster bill that was more than 3,000 pages and combined nine major appropriation bills. The nine bills would have normally been taken up separately. In addition, the omnibus bill included three pieces of major legislation. So with this mega legislative agenda. it was remarkable it received only a few hours of debate on the Senate floor.

Thankfully Sen. Kent Conrad from North Dakota was an outspoken critic of the bill. In less than 24 hours before the final vote, his staff reviewed the bill, found a provision that allowed Senate staffers to access any federal tax return for any reason. The new powers to invade personal and corporate privacy came with complete immunity. Hard to believe, but true. Some say it would not have passed the Supreme Court, but I'm not so sure.

In real life drama, the egregious tax provisions were revealed on the Senate floor, and Stevens became red-faced and angry. To fix the "outrage," as it was describe by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Stevens adamantly maintained he was unaware of the provision, but it was indeed a major mistake.

Nonetheless, he still urged his colleagues to pass the bill on the promise he would not implement the provision. More correctly, that he could convince President George Bush not to recognize this provision of law. Thankfully his fellow senators did not heed his advice, and the provisions were later deleted by congressional action.

In any case, the moral of the story was that the whole dangerous affair was on Stevens' watch. And that the buck did not stop there. The jury-of-his-peers were fellow captains in the Republican leadership.

Unfortunately the mere presence of an indictment is a stain even under the presumption of innocence. So it is understandable that Stevens is entitled to a blind and loyal following. On a per capita basis, he has secured more money for his state than any of his colleagues. The irony is that the indictment comes under the Bush administration and within a Department of Justice that hired and fired federal attorneys using partisan litmus tests.

So it is comforting for some of us that our federal prosecutors still have plenty of independence. That is good for us in the long run - even if we suffer in the near term.

But regardless of the outcome, our sympathies should go out to Stevens. Why? Because politics is really bloodless warfare, and he has been a legendary warrior for all of us. Furthermore, my guess is that the whole affair will be all overshadowed by a new paradigm for Alaska in Washington politics - a sad day for Alaska indeed.

• Joe Mehrkens is a Juneau resident.

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