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Stevens secured $2.7 million for friend's road

Analyst calls road a 'classic pork barrel project'

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2008

GIRDWOOD - Just 0.7 miles long, Crow Creek Road isn't a road to nowhere. It runs straight to the Double Musky Inn, a Cajun bistro owned by a Bob Persons, a close friend of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

al grillo / the associated press
al grillo / the associated press

It cost taxpayers $2.7 million to widen and pave that road, and Alaska had higher priorities. But an Associated Press examination of government e-mails and interviews with state transportation officials found that Stevens moved the project to the front of the line.

Persons, owner of the popular watering hole where the Republican senator frequently dines, testified as a defense witness this month in Washington, D.C., where Stevens is on trial for corruption.

"This is a classic pork barrel project that just confirms everyone's fears," said David Williams, a vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's like 'Hey, if you're my buddy, I'll just get you a few million dollars and make you a road to your restaurant."'

Details of the Crow Creek deal emerged as Stevens awaits a verdict in his trial. He is charged with lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about gifts, including more than $250,000 in home improvements to his cabin, not far from the Double Musky.

Trial testimony indicated that Stevens granted Persons power of attorney to guide the home renovation. Among the many presents Stevens is charged with concealing is a nearly $2,700 massage chair from Persons. Stevens says the chair was a loan. But his explanation of why he kept it in his house for seven years led to one of the more awkward exchanges of his testimony.

Telephone messages left at Persons' home and the restaurant were not immediately returned.

Stevens' spokesman, Steve Wackowski, declined to answer specific questions from the AP concerning Stevens' communications with Persons about the road. In a statement, he said the senator set aside the money at local officials' request and believed paving the road would boost tourism to a historic gold mine two miles beyond where the asphalt ends.

Stevens' intent, as relayed through his staff to state officials, "was that any improvements or construction must continue all the way up to the mine," according to the statement.

In 2002, when Stevens was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he inserted last-minute language in a transportation bill to secure $10 million for "Girdwood: Road Improvements." He then ensured that his intentions to pave his friend's road were carried out.

Girdwood officials planned to cut that project, however, and repair residential streets with the money, according to the e-mails. They had other priorities such as fixing trails and easing traffic.

That was unacceptable to Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator. Stevens, in office since 1968, has brought home billions in projects to his state.

In a June 2003 e-mail, a Stevens office worker, Lisa Sutherland, warned the director of Alaska's state office in Washington, D.C., that Stevens "would then be criticized for fixing up his own street. Remember he lives there. The best person to talk to to get guidance is Bob Persons."

Persons was ready to help.

At Sutherland's suggestion, a state transportation official, David Post, called Persons to clarify the senator's intent. Persons said the senator wanted the money to pave Crow Creek Road, a spruce-lined path dotted with a few commercial businesses.

Post told the AP he found it unusual to get direction on a publicly funded project from someone outside government. "It struck me as odd, yes," said Post, a regional transportation planning manager.

In an e-mail from June 24, 2003, the department's chief of planning for the central region wrote a colleague about Post's conversation with Persons.

"Spoke with Bob Persons this morning as Lisa suggested and his understanding from the Senator was that Crow Creek Rd. is number 1 priority because it is in such bad shape," reads the e-mail from John Tolley. "This is 'somewhat' consistent with the board of supervisors' priorities, however they have some other improvements in their top 7 priorities."

In fact, the paving of Crow Creek Road was No. 6.

Stevens and Persons have known each other for 25 years. Persons and his wife, Deanna, have contributed nearly $7,000 to Stevens' campaigns over the past decade.

The New Orleans-themed restaurant, which has been featured on the Food Network's "Best Of" series, is less than two miles from Stevens' house, near the Mount Alyeska ski resort. Stevens wrote an introduction for Person's cookbook, praising his "honestly good meals."

In 2000, when the senator needed to renovate his cabin, he asked Persons for help. Prosecutors say Persons knew Stevens was not paying the full cost for the work and that he helped cover up who was - an Alaska oil services company.

Persons' son Justin, who co-owns the Musky, told the AP his father voiced concern about the paving project when crews took out trees along their property line this year.

Justin Persons said his father did not support the paving because the family long had enjoyed the "novelty of driving down a bumpy dirt road to a great restaurant."

But Post said Persons never objected to it when he called in 2003.

The restaurateur submitted one comment at a public meeting about the road project in 2004, urging authorities to "keep it narrow and add speed bumps w/ gravel shoulders for walkers & runners."

The repaving originally was intended to stretch 3.5 miles, but had to be scaled back in part due to the cost of replacing a bridge farther along Crow Creek Road, said Jennifer Witt, a transportation department chief.

Today, the asphalt ends just past the Double Musky. Witt said in an interview it's a coincidence.

But had Stevens done a favor for his friend?

"I could see where it appears that way," said Witt.

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Associated Press writers Justin Pritchard in Girdwood and Matt Apuzzo in Washington contributed to this report.



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