WASHINGTON The corruption investigation of Alaska back-room deals began in 2004, mostly targeting state legislators and businessmen. On Tuesday, prosecutors aimed much higher with federal charges on the other side of the continent against Ted Stevens, the nation's longest-serving Republican senator.
A grand jury in Washington indicted Stevens, a major figure in Alaska politics since before statehood, on seven felony counts of concealing more than a quarter of a million dollars in house renovations and gifts from a powerful oil contractor that lobbied him for government aid.
Stevens, 84, the first sitting U.S. senator to face federal indictment since 1993, declared, "I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that."
He is accused of lying on his annual Senate financial disclosure reports between 1999 and 2006 an indictment that caps a lengthy FBI investigation that has upended Alaska politics and brought unfavorable attention to both Stevens and his congressional colleague, GOP Rep. Don Young. Both are running for re-election this year.
Stevens' indictment further damages Republican prospects in the November election as Senate Democrats, who now enjoy a 51-49 majority, try to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. Stevens faces both Democratic and Republican challengers who are trying to capitalize on his legal woes.
The Justice Department accused Stevens of accepting expensive work on his home in Girdwood, Alaska, a ski resort town outside Anchorage, from oil services contractor VECO Corp. and its executives. VECO normally builds oil processing equipment and pipelines, but its employees helped do the work on Stevens' home.
Prosecutors said that work included a new first floor, garage, wraparound deck, plumbing and electrical wiring. He also is accused of accepting from VECO a Viking gas grill, furniture and tools, and of failing to report swapping an old Ford for a new Land Rover to be driven by one of his children.
From May 1999 to August 2007, prosecutors said, the senator concealed "his continuing receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of things of value from a private corporation."
Stevens said in a statement distributed by his office: "I have proudly served this nation and Alaska for over 50 years. My public service began when I served in World War II. It saddens me to learn that these charges have been brought against me. I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator."
He said that in line with Senate GOP rules he was temporarily giving up the ranking positions his seniority has given him. If the Republicans were to take over the Senate, the party's most-senior senator would be in line to become president pro tempore, a mostly symbolic title but one that would make him third in line for the presidency after the vice president and speaker of the House.
Stevens was expected to turn himself in, prosecutors said. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton, a Democrat.
Tuesday's charges tarnish one of the most powerful and savvy of the GOP lions in the Senate. Stevens has coasted to re-election six times in Alaska but this year is in what has been viewed as the toughest race of his career against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Young, who is under scrutiny for his fundraising practices involving VECO, called Stevens "one of the most effective and honest legislators I have ever worked with."
"He has worked diligently to serve Alaska and has fought to make life better for people in every region of our state," Young said in a statement. "I hope people will not rush to judgment and will let the judicial process work. The process is based on being innocent until proven guilty."
Said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.: "It's a sad day for him, us, but you know I believe in the American system of justice, and he's presumed innocent."
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said, "The president has been working with Senator Stevens for many years, and he appreciates his strong leadership on key issues. This is a legal matter that the Department of Justice is handling, and so we will not comment further on it."
Prosecutors said Stevens "took multiple steps to continue" receiving things from VECO and its founder, Bill Allen. The indictment says Allen and other VECO employees were soliciting Stevens for "multiple official actions ... knowing that Stevens could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of VECO during that same time period."
VECO's requests included funding and other aid for the company's projects and partnerships in Pakistan and Russia. It also included federal grants from several agencies, as well as help in building a national gas pipeline in Alaska's North Slope Region, according to the indictment filed in Washington.
Stevens has maintained he didn't do anything for VECO that he didn't do for any other constituent or pro-Alaska interest. The indictment stops short of charging Stevens with bribery or other traditional corruption crimes.
Had prosecutors been able to prove any special treatment for VECO, that could have triggered much more serious charges.
VECO was once the dominant force in Alaska's oil services industry. Its founder, Allen, and vice president, Rick Smith, have pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers to push legislation to help the company. That initial investigation into VECO spawned the Stevens probe.
Allen agreed to cooperate with the FBI as part of a plea deal for a lesser penalty. That cooperation included letting the FBI tape his phone calls with Stevens, though those calls do not appear as part of the indictment.
Throughout the investigation, Stevens has remained an iconic figure in Alaska. A moderate Republican, he has served almost 40 years in the Senate, where he unabashedly steered money to his remote and sparsely populated home state. He often drew criticism from outside Alaska for going around the traditional appropriations process to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars for pet projects.
The Justice Department has closely followed that money, looking for where it intersects with the senator's son, Ben, who also is under investigation concerning financial ties to a company that stood to make millions off a piece of federal legislation his father wrote.
Tuesday's indictment comes a year after another Republican senator, Larry Craig of Idaho, pleaded guilty to charges arising out of a Minneapolis airport men's room sex sting.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., called Stevens a hero, adding, however, he didn't know any details about the indictment. "All of us have times that we have to deal with that are tough," Warner said. "I wish him the best."
Another GOP colleague, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said, "I've known Ted Stevens for 28 years, and have always known him to be impeccably honest."
The last sitting senator to be indicted in federal court was Republican Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota, who was charged in 1993 with conspiring to file fraudulent claims for Senate reimbursement of $3,825 in lodging expenses. He eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $1,000 fine.
In the Stevens case, Acting Assistant Attorney General Matthew Friedrich, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, said prosecutors followed their policy of keeping politics out of the decision-making process.
"We bring cases based on our evaluation of the facts and the law," Friedrich said. "We bring cases when they are ready to be charged, and that's what happened here."