An Alaska outrage

Outside editorial

Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The following editorial appeared in Monday's Washington Post:

When last we reported on the legislative machinations of Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Alaska Republican was pushing a series of obnoxious appropriations riders related to fisheries in Alaska's waters. Since then, Mr. Stevens has backed off the worst of the riders: a provision that would have blocked federal money for the identification and protection of cold water coral beds and other sensitive marine habitats.

But other special-interest goodies remain in the omnibus spending package, including two in which the senator's son - state legislator Ben Stevens - has direct financial interests. One would force crab fishermen in the state to sell 90 percent of their catch of certain species to officially designated processors - processors whose trade association pays the senator's son as a consultant. The other would give the exclusive right to fish for pollock in an area off the Aleutian Islands to a Native corporation - which has the younger Mr. Stevens on the board of directors of one its subsidiaries.

Ted Stevens insists that his advocacy for these projects has nothing to do with his son. But it turns out that Ben Stevens is not the only one benefiting financially from his legislative efforts. A remarkable recent story in the Los Angeles Times detailed the senator's apparent habit of doing legislative favors for those who have been helping him turn modest sums into a considerable personal fortune.

According to the Times, Mr. Stevens helped an Anchorage developer named Jonathan B. Rubini land a $450 million contract with the military to upgrade housing on an Air Force base. That same developer, it turns out, is Mr. Stevens' partner in another lucrative business venture. Mr. Stevens had put $50,000 into a Rubini venture called JLS Properties; unlike other investors, he was not required to guarantee the partnership's debts. And the investment paid off: Mr. Rubini built a large building in Anchorage - making Mr. Stevens' share worth between $750,000 and $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the venture's tenant, a Native corporation called Arctic Slope Regional Corp., pays $6 million a year to occupy the building. And Mr. Stevens has helped Arctic Slope in the legislative process as well - ensuring that Native corporations, set up under legislation he pushed in the early 1970s, get extensive contracting preferences. How did Mr. Stevens get such a plum investment opportunity? A lobbyist named William H. Bittner - Mr. Stevens' brother-in-law - contacted Mr. Rubini in 1997 to inquire about investments for his kin.

Yet Mr. Stevens gives his word that all of these connections are just coincidence. At a press conference in response to the story, he declared that he has "never helped anyone to achieve financial gain for myself or my family" but has "helped Alaskans without regard to race, religion, sex, party, financial circumstances, where they lived - literally without qualification." In an interview, he told us that he had no idea who had leased space in the building and that his intervention on Mr. Rubini's behalf was a response to the government's reluctance to give him the contract after he won a competitive bid: "That's my job. I would have done that for anyone," he said. As for his son and the fisheries riders, he said that "this state's so small, there's hardly anything my son could do that wouldn't be affected by what I do.... I didn't do this for Ben. I did this for the crab industry."

Nobody doubts the aggressiveness with which Mr. Stevens has advocated for Alaska businesses in general - but if a county commissioner were helping out those who were busy enriching him in this fashion, there would be an investigation. The Senate must not now look the other way simply because Mr. Stevens is among the most powerful of its members - a man who dominates the appropriations process and makes no secret of his willingness to retaliate against senators who cross him. If this sort of behavior happens not to violate any of the Senate's ethics rules, then those rules need to be changed.

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