Despite multiple federal investigations and new allegations aimed at Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Senate Republican leaders continue to stand by their colleague and are unlikely to take action unless federal authorities indict him for any wrongdoing.
Stevens — as well as his son, former state Sen. Ben Stevens (R); Rep. Don Young (R); and numerous other state officials and business leaders — is the target of a wide-ranging federal investigation into corruption in the state. The FBI and Internal Revenue Service, along with the departments of Justice, Commerce and Interior, are investigating Stevens’ role in a variety of cases involving the oil and fishing industries.
The Associated Press late last week reported that federal officials had taped phone conversations between Stevens and former VECO CEO Bill Allen, who this spring pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Allen is now cooperating with investigators. In a separate corruption trial in Alaska, Allen earlier this month testified that he paid VECO employees to do construction work on Stevens’ home in Girdwood, Alaska, in addition to giving Stevens furniture for the home.
A VECO employee has also acknowledged helping run fundraisers for Stevens while on the clock with the company, a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
When asked if new information that Stevens’ phone calls were tapped by the FBI would prompt Senate GOP leaders to call for his removal from committee and subcommittee leadership positions, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “I don’t have anything to add to what I said earlier about that.”
On July 31, McConnell told reporters: “I understand that the Majority Leader, in response to that question, indicated that he thought it was an ongoing investigation and would not comment on it at this point. We — Sen. Stevens has four decades of service in the United States Senate. … I’ll certainly be discussing the matter with my Conference, but I don’t have any announcements today to make with regard to that.”
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week said, “I didn’t comment on [Sen.] Larry Craig [R-Idaho]. I’m not going to comment on this. … I’m not going to get into that.”
Neither lawmakers nor their staffers were willing to discuss the Stevens controversy publicly. But privately they acknowledge the allegations of wrongdoing — and growing indications that federal investigators are building a case against Stevens separate from their probe of his son and state lawmakers — are troublesome, particularly in the wake of the Craig scandal.
McConnell and other leaders quickly moved to distance themselves from Craig after Roll Call reported that he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in a Minneapolis sex sting case. They even went so far as to call on him to resign his committee assignments and asked for an ethics investigation — even though Republican Conference rules only require a Member to step down if indicted for a felony offense.
McConnell has argued the two cases are different because Craig pleaded guilty — although he has since recanted that plea and is trying to have it vacated — while Stevens is only under investigation and has professed his innocence.
One Republican said that while the constant stream of news stories and testimony in the Alaska cases is no doubt damaging, there is little leaders believe they can do at this point. “Absolutely the image, the PR, all of that is a problem … [but] at this point I don’t think we’re in a position to do anything,” the Republican source said, explaining that Stevens’ personality and stature within the party make it impossible for McConnell to use the kind of public pressure he used on Craig.
“If we came out and said we don’t want you to run and we want you to leave, he’d go and run and would win,” the source said. Noting Stevens’ notoriously prickly nature, this source argued it is all but certain that any public condemnations or calls for him to step down from his committees by McConnell would be rejected by Stevens, and that the resulting bad blood would create an even worse media circus for Republicans.
“Nothing’s worse than a denounced Senator who will not leave. … It’s not even really working for Craig,” the Republican said.
Nevertheless, other Republicans said it is becoming increasingly clear that McConnell will need to take steps to distance the party from Stevens or risk having his ethical woes cast a pall over next year’s elections.
One GOP aide, while sympathizing with the plight of leadership, argued that it is ultimately McConnell’s responsibility to insulate other Members, even if it means a showdown with Stevens.
“I can understand [their position], but when you’re the leader, your job is to lead,” one Republican aide said privately, arguing that the sooner the party is able to demonstrate its unwillingness to tolerate even the appearance of corruption or unethical behavior, the better off it will be. “It is helpful to everybody [in the Senate] and it’s helpful to the party if we distance ourselves from the behavior that’s been highlighted here,” the aide said.
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.