Ethics cloud stymies lawmakers

Alaska's delegation losing hold on its legendary power

Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - When he was a keeper of the federal purse strings, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska told another Republican senator who opposed the infamous "bridge to nowhere," "I don't threaten people. I promise people."

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His home-state GOP colleague, Rep. Don Young, was not to be outdone. Last month he told a fellow House member who opposed education money for native Alaskans: "There is always another day when those who bite will be killed, too, and I am very good at that. Those that bite me will be bitten back."

Stevens and Young may not be promising, threatening or biting anymore, now that both are under federal investigation.

The investigations - and a questionable land deal that entangled the third member of Alaska's congressional delegation - also may have ended a modern-day gold rush that sent billions of federal dollars to the state.

Alaska's entire delegation is under an ethical cloud, something congressional historians say is unprecedented:

• Stevens is contending with an extraordinary FBI and IRS raid on his Girdwood home and a probe into his dealings with businessmen who oversaw remodeling of the house.

• Young is the subject of a federal investigation that includes his campaign finance practices, and he has been chided by the leaders of his own party for his threatening comments. He was left off a House-Senate conference on an annual water resources bill that he had handled as a committee chairman.

• Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced that she and her husband will sell back an undeveloped piece of riverfront property after a complaint to the Senate's ethics committee alleged the purchase was a sweetheart deal.

Stevens, 83, is the longest-serving Republican in Senate history - having taken office in 1968. Young, 74, has been in office since 1973. Both face election next year.

Alaska earmarks

Examples of special project appropriations:

• Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. From its federal funds, the board gave Alaska Airlines a $500,000 grant. It was used, in part, to paint a Boeing 737 to look like a Chinook Salmon to promote the state's seafood.

• The Alyeska Roundhouse received $450,000. The building is at the Alyeska ski resort in Girdwood, where Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has his home.

• Money for six "Alternative Salmon Products." The University of Alaska received several of these earmarks, which included $450,000 for development of baby food containing salmon in 2006.

• The National Archives and Records Administration received at least $2.25 million toward the purchase of an empty lot in Anchorage from two former Stevens business partners. The purchase cost was $3.5 million, allowing the former Stevens partners to more than double their investment.

Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense

"They aren't as bulletproof as they once were," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks pet projects known as earmarks or pork-barrel spending. "The people are not going to be quite as afraid of taking on The Hulk or Don Young." "The Hulk" is a reference to Stevens, who occasionally sports a tie with the image of the Incredible Hulk cartoon character.

No other delegation has delivered like Alaska's, using a combination of intimidating tactics and powerful positions - especially when Republicans were in the majority through last year. Stevens headed the Senate Appropriations Committee. Young led the House Transportation Committee, making him the traffic cop for all road and mass transit projects.

More than 2,000 projects worth $7.5 billion have gone to Alaska since 2000, says Taxpayers for Common Sense. Alaska received a little over $1 billion in the 2005 highway bill.

A 2005-2007 study of earmarks by the group showed that Alaska - ranked 47th in population - has done far better than other states, when spending is calculated per person. Spending over the three-year period came to $4,311 per person in earmarked projects for Alaskans, while Hawaii was a distant second at $1,812. At the low end were the populous states of Texas, at $98 per person, and New York, $95 per person.

Part of the difference can be explained by Alaska's special needs, with its remote geography, rough terrain and extreme weather. But the clout of Stevens and Young also has played a huge role.

"There was a time when these were the gods in some ways, but it's a new world," said Bill Hoagland, a former Senate Appropriations Committee staff director under Stevens. "There are senators and congressmen who are new to the institution and don't have reason to be as scared as previous members. They don't have the same fear factor."

Still, Dr. Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, said the investigations have not yet generated a public outcry against Stevens and Young in Alaska.

"They brought a lot of programs to the state. It will take a conviction to get large numbers of people against them," Shepro said.

"One of the things about Young that turns a lot of people off in D.C., and some people here, is the fact that he'll get in some people's faces." But most Alaskans appreciate that, he said. "A lot of voters think he's expressing individualism."

Federal authorities are scrutinizing Stevens' relationship with oil field services contractor Bill Allen, who helped oversee a renovation project that more than doubled the size of Stevens' Alaska home in 2000. Allen's company, VECO Inc., won tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts and officials were major political donors. Allen has pleaded guilty to bribing lawmakers in the state Legislature.

The Young probe, in part, involves his campaign finance practices, according to a law enforcement official who commented only on condition of anonymity. The investigation was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Former VECO CEO Allen held fundraisers called "the Pig Roast" for Young every August for 10 years.

Young's spokeswoman Meredith Kenny has declined to discuss the investigation.

Stevens says the interests of justice will be best served if he does not comment until after the investigation.

Murkowski says her land deal was "a judgment call that I made that allowed me and my husband to undergo a level of criticism that I believe is unfounded but has caused people to question me. I'm not willing to compromise that trust for any piece of property."

Murkowski had drawn criticism over her purchase - located along the scenic Kenai River southwest of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula - from a campaign contributor she called a lifelong family friend.

Hoagland, the former appropriations committee staff director under Stevens, said that even before the latest incidents, "the winds had already started to shift" away from Stevens and Young. It started, he said, with the defeat in late 2005 of the "bridge to nowhere" - a $223 million project connecting Alaska's lightly populated Gravina Island to Ketchikan. Federal funding for the bridge was scaled back after it drew scorn from the media and the public, but local officials still want to go ahead with the project.

Then, both men were left in the minority by last November's election results.

Hoagland added, "The congressional environment on earmarks, the minority status, and on top of that the black cloud that hangs over ... particularly Stevens will lessen the amount of funding he and Young can channel back to state of Alaska."

"But he is a tough fighter. I never underestimate Ted Stevens."

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