Big Trouble for a Senate Icon

Few dared question Alaska's irascible Ted Stevens--until now

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Stevens at a federal facility in Juneau named after him.

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For the past 39 years, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska has usually had his way up on Capitol Hill. The longest-serving Republican in the Senate has over the years chaired the powerful Appropriations and Commerce committees, posts which have helped him steer billions in federal dollars to help develop the Last Frontier. And he has always been unafraid to run roughshod over opponents who found his manner more than a little acerbic. "No other senator fills so central a place in his state's public and economic life," says The Almanac of American Politics. "Quite possibly no other senator ever has."

But now that clout is in jeopardy. The 83-year-old senator is under scrutiny in a far-reaching Alaska corruption investigation. The FBI has been looking into whether Stevens received illegal gifts from a once powerful energy contractor, Veco Corp. Last week, a former Alaska House speaker was convicted of taking bribes from the same company. And during that former legislator's trial, bruising details of the bribery scandal—which has engulfed several former state lawmakers, including Stevens's son—have come to light.

Chipping away. No charges have been filed against Stevens or his son, and the senator maintains his innocence, as does his son, Ben Stevens. But the recent revelations appear to be chipping away at the elder Stevens's support base. GOP Gov. Sarah Palin has called on Stevens to explain himself, and one independent poll taken this summer showed that 44 percent of voters in Anchorage had a negative view of the senator.

Alaskans are holding their breath as they await the outcome of the investigation, but many worry the controversy has already sullied the state's reputation. "People are waiting for the other shoe to fall," says Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "To the extent that it affects Senator Stevens's reputation, it will have an impact on the ability to find needed funding for Alaska's infrastructure projects."

Stevens is not commenting in any depth on the investigation, saying that it would be an obstruction of justice to speak publicly. "I continue to believe," says Stevens in a recent statement, "this investigation should proceed to its conclusion without any appearance that I have attempted to influence its outcome."

Things began to turn sour for the senator in May, when the former chief executive of Veco, Bill Allen—a longtime political ally of Stevens—pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme involving state lawmakers. One of the lawmakers implicated was Ben Stevens, who left the state Senate last year. The investigation in Alaska has focused on Allen's efforts to dole out $400,000 in alleged bribes to lawmakers (he says Ben Stevens was one of them) in exchange for favorable oil tax legislation.

Services. In early June, Ted Stevens told reporters that the FBI had contacted him about turning over documents. Then in late July, FBI and IRS agents raided Stevens's home in Girdwood, Alaska, a ski resort area south of Anchorage. In late August, during the trial of state Rep. Pete Kott, a Republican who was Alaska House speaker, Allen said he had Veco workers renovate the elder Stevens's home. And one of the construction workers hired by Veco said he helped run fundraisers for Stevens, an action that would appear to violate campaign finance law, if indeed it happened. Allen also said during the trial that he was helping the FBI record phone calls with the elder Stevens. Jurors last week found Kott guilty of conspiracy to solicit financial benefits, extortion, and bribery. Federal prosecutors said Kott took nearly $9,000 in bribes. Ted Stevens's office had no comment on Kott's conviction. Earlier the senator told reporters that he paid all the bills he received for the remodeling of his home.

Stevens says he plans to run again in 2008, and so far no Republican has sought to challenge him in the primary. Stevens has traditionally sailed to reelection, but Democrats are salivating at the possibility of an indictment. National party officials have been trying to persuade Anchorage's Democratic mayor, Mark Begich, to run against Stevens next year. It's a signal that perhaps times have changed on the Last Frontier.