Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a giant of Senate politics and a legend in Alaska, has been indicted on seven federal criminal charges accusing him of failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of home renovations and other gifts from VECO Corp., an Alaskan oil company that in turn asked for favors in the Senate.
The indictment charges Stevens, 84, with engaging in a nearly eight-year scheme to conceal his receipt of more than $250,000 in “things of value” from VECO. The stunning indictment, laid out at a Department of Justice press conference Tuesday afternoon, accuses Stevens of failing to report “gifts” ranging from a Land Rover car deal to a Viking stove to plumbing and electrical work.
Stevens, who was already facing a tough re-election campaign this fall, now finds his five-decade political career in serious jeopardy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, stepping briefly before a microphone Tuesday afternoon, said he would “ no doubt” have “more to say” about Stevens’ case later but said he was off to work on energy legislation in the meantime.
But sources tell Politico that McConnell’s office has ordered GOP senators to go into “full lockdown mode” regarding the indictment. "There is nothing we can say that won't make the feeding frenzy worse," said one Senate GOP leadership aide.
Stevens and his staff are still wrestling with how to respond to the media swarm, said a GOP insider.
"They are not sure how to respond right now - should they fight back, should they deny everything?
They're not sure,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Asked about Stevens, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Reid said it was “a sad day for us, a sad day for him."
Reid did not call for Stevens’ resignation, saying it was up to the Republicans to decide how to handle the case.
Under Senate Republican Conference Rules, any GOP senator changed with a felony must give up his position as chairman or ranking member on any Senate committees; Stevens is currently the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee.
An FBI spokesman said that a summons will be issued for the senator’s arrest, but that he will be allowed to make arrangements to turn himself in for processing. No court date has been set.
The indictment charges Stevens with making false statements in his financial disclosure statements regarding his receipt of "substantial home improvements to property Stevens owns in Girdwood, Alaska: automobile exchanges in which Stevens received new vehicles worth far more than the used vehicles Stevens provided in exchange; household goods."
It further alleges that, "during the same time he was concealing his continued receipt of these things of value from VECO and [VECO executive] Allen,” Stevens “received solicitations for official actions from Allen and other VECO employees, and that Sen. Stevens used his position and office on behalf of VECO during that same time period.”
The indictment also states that Stevens received a new 1999 Land Rover worth $44K for Stevens' son in return for Stevens’ 1964 Mustang and $5,000 in cash.
“Sen. Stevens did not reimburse or repay VECO or its chief executive officer for these gifts,” said Matthew Friedrich, the acting assistant attorney general.
Friedrich said prosecutors have not been able to establish the quid pro quo necessary for bribery charges. However, he did say that the investigation is ongoing.
In exchange for these “things of value” from VECO, the oil services company asked Stevens for help with company projects in Pakistan and Russia and a National Science Foundation grant to a VECO subsidiary, the indictment says.
Stevens' Washington office is shut down right now, and no one is answering phone calls. A spokesman in Alaska declned to answer questions.
The indictment could spell the end of a Senate career that began 40 years ago. Stevens is undoubtedly the most powerful politician in Alaska's 50-year history of statehood, but his relationships with contractors and lobbyists have come under intense scrutiny over the past year. He is a former appropriations chairman who has funneled tens of billions in earmarks and federal funds back to his home state, but he become the butt of jokes over the so-called “bridge to nowhere” earmark that became a symbol of Washington excess.
Stevens is merely the biggest figure in an Alaskan political corruption scandal that has also ensnared Stevens’ son Ben, who was president of the Alaskan Senate. VECO executives have also been indicted. Separately, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is under scrutiny for his business relationships, and he is thought to be vulnerable in his upcoming GOP primary.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a longtime Stevens friend, said he wasn’t surprised by the news because Stevens has been under investigation for so long. He said, however, that he believes Stevens is innocent.
Other senators responded with caution. "I need to learn more of the facts before I comment," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also said they did not want to comment before learning more about the matter.
"I have the highest personal regard for him," Warner added. "He is a strong man. He fought hard for his state, which he loved. All of us have unexpected moments in our career. All of us have to do our best to work through them. I wish him the best."
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), emerging from the Democrats’ weekly policy lunch, said there had been a “somber” reaction to word of Stevens’ indictment. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said he was “saddened” by the news.
The indictment comes just as congressional Republicans, braced for more electoral setbacks in November, were beginning to think that their focus on energy might pay off with voters. Appearing on MSNBC Tuesday afternoon, Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan said that the indictment involves “a serious allegation” but insisted that it wouldn’t be a distraction from John McCain’s presidential campaign.
“This presidential campaign will not be about the senior senator from Alaska,” Duncan said. “It's going to be about big issues, about energy, about tax policy, it's going to be about the future of America. This is a blip along the way.”