The Senate Ethics Committee has broad legal authority to listen to FBI tape recordings made of Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) telephone conversations, should the panel launch an inquiry into corruption allegations against the seven-term lawmaker.
In a little-known 1981 court ruling, a federal judge declared that Senate Ethics Committee investigators fall within the legal definition of federal law enforcement agencies and must be granted access to legally obtained wiretap evidence, particularly as it relates to actions involving a Senator.
The court ruling also affirms the Senate committee’s right to obtain wiretap evidence even when the Member involved has not been indicted.
Given that precedent, the Ethics Committee would have a strong case if it sought to hear tapes of Stevens and an oil company executive whose firm renovated Stevens’ house. The tapes were made as part of a wide-ranging public corruption investigation in Alaska.
However, the court record also suggests that the committee might not press for the tapes, if at all, until after Justice has completed any grand jury investigations that may use the tapes as evidence.
Though Stevens is under federal investigation on multiple fronts, it is not known whether the Senate Ethics Committee is currently probing his activities, and there is no evidence they are currently doing so. The committee’s chief of staff, Robert Walker, declined to comment for this story.
In the past, the committee has begun preliminary inquiries based on media reports of alleged wrongdoing. In recent years, Members of Congress have argued that the ethics committees should not act while law enforcement agencies also are investigating.
Still, one former Senate Ethics staffer said he expects the committee already is gathering information on the Stevens case.
“I would not be surprised by that at all. It would be consistent with the committee’s history,” said Wilson Abney, who served as legal counsel and chief of staff to the Senate Ethics panel from 1980 to 1992.
The 1981 case involved taped conversations of then-Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) and Teamsters union officials who were indicted for plotting to bribe the Senator.
Though Cannon never was indicted in the case, the Ethics Committee subpoenaed the tapes and transcripts from the Justice Department for its own investigation into whether Cannon conspired with Teamsters officials to buy a piece of Las Vegas real estate at a reduced price in exchange for his opposition to trucking legislation.
At the time, the Justice Department agreed to turn over the material, but the Teamsters defendants sought to block its release. In a rare friend of the court brief, the Senate legal counsel argued, among other things, that the Ethics panel’s authority to investigate and punish Senators qualified it as a law enforcement entity eligible to receive wiretap evidence.
However, the brief notes that the panel waited to press its prerogatives until after the grand jury investigation was completed. The committee and its staff pledged not to disclose any of the evidence presented to them without informing the Justice Department first, according to court documents.
Ultimately, the Ethics panel never formally acted on the Cannon allegations, and Cannon lost his bid for re-election in 1982. He passed away in 2002.
Stevens remains under a cloud of suspicion, given that FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided his Girdwood, Alaska, home in July as part of an extensive inquiry into corruption in the state connected to the oil and fishing industries. Bill Allen, the former CEO of the oil services giant VECO, pleaded guilty this spring to bribing state lawmakers, including Stevens’ son, Ben, and is cooperating with federal officials in that investigation.
Earlier this month, Allen testified that VECO paid for work done on the Girdwood home and that VECO employees worked on the house. Stevens has claimed he paid for all work done on the home himself.
Citing sources close to the investigation, The Associated Press reported last month that Allen cooperated with the FBI in taping his conversations with Stevens. It’s unclear what the two men discussed on the tapes.
The FBI, IRS, DOJ and departments of Commerce and Interior also are investigating Stevens over a series of earmarks he inserted into appropriations bills for the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. Those funds eventually made their way to Trevor McCabe, a former Stevens aide and business partner of his son. McCabe also is under investigation.
John Stanton contributed to this report.