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King Crab, King Pork: Alaska's Senator Stevens Michael Winship Color me crabby
Published on Tuesday, January 24, 2006 by the Messenger Post (New York)
King Crab, King Pork: Alaska's Senator Stevens
by Michael Winship
 

Color me crabby. Flying home from Los Angeles on Sunday, a certain airline that shall remain nameless (United) failed to get my suitcase on the flight. Most of Monday was spent wresting it back from them.

The last time this happened was while flying back from Alaska, when my luggage failed to make it onto a United flight out of Anchorage.

Speaking of crabby guys (behold a seamless segue), the Anchorage airport is named after Alaska's United States Senator Ted Stevens, irascible chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Remember him yelling at Washington Senator Maria Cantwell when she asked him to swear in the heads of the big oil companies at those hearings in November? When feeling especially confrontational on the Senate floor, he likes to wear an Incredible Hulk necktie. I'm betting airlines don't lose his luggage.

Last week, Stevens was swearing in Congressman Robert Menendez as New Jersey's new senator, replacing Jon Corzine, who just became governor of New Jersey. The cranky coot could or would not pronounce either of their ethnic-sounding surnames correctly. Corzine came out "Cor-zeen," and Menendez was shortened to "Men-dez," making Stevens sound like the bigoted senator in "Godfather II" who keeps calling Al Pacino "Michael Corley-oh-Nee."

He had the swearing-in duties because the vice president was out of the country and Stevens is the nation's senior Republican senator, which makes him the president pro tempore of the Senate. Should anything calamitous happen, this means he's fairly high up in the line of succession to the White House: two or three heartbeats from the presidency, depending on how you evaluate the respective roles of Bush and Cheney.

The curmudgeonly Stevens is one of those who has divested himself of campaign cash from lobbyist crook Jack Abramoff and his clients. He received $1000 from Abramoff directly, which he has donated to the Alaskan chapter of the Red Cross, and $17,000 from Native American tribes and others represented by Abramoff, which he says will be given to other charities.

Senator Stevens should be held up as a poster boy for all that's wrong about money's grip on the House and Senate, but not because of the Abramoff boodle. Rather, he serves as a perfect example of why Congress has to look to fixing itself and not just the K Street lobbyists to achieve true reform.

Over the last decade, Stevens allegedly has used his position to very effectively feather his nest. According to a 2003 Los Angeles Times investigation, after losing his shirt investing in the construction of a commercial crab boat (they can cost millions), "He got serious about making money.

"And in almost no time, he... was a millionaire -- thanks to investments with businessmen who received government contracts or other benefits with his help."

Among them, the Times reported, using "the power his committee posts gave him over the Pentagon, Stevens helped save a $450 million military housing contract for an Anchorage businessman. That same partner made Stevens a partner in a series of real estate investments that turned the senator's $50,000 stake into at least $750,000 in six years."

Stevens was not liable for any debts incurred in these deals. One of them, an office tower in Anchorage, is leased for $6 million a year by the state's largest Alaskan-owned company, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Not only has Arctic Slope received millions in defense contracts, it owns petroleum rights to 92,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Stevens, of course, has been the Senate's head cheerleader for opening ANWR to oil exploration, his latest maneuver a failed attempt in December to attach drilling language to the defense appropriations bill.

A year ago, Senator Stevens announced that he was selling off his real estate investments and placing the money in a blind trust. He made $822,000. An inquiry by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics continues.

Stevens insists that all of his actions have been to further the interests of his beloved state and not his own (or his son's, wife's or brother-in-law's). To that end, he has turned the acquisition of pork for Alaska into industrial-scale art. Back in 2001, he cavalierly told a National Public Radio interviewer, "I am guilty of asking the Senate for pork and proud of the Senate for giving it to me."

Last year, the watchdog group Citizens against Government Waste awarded Senator Stevens its "Hogzilla Award" in recognition of his tremendous appetite: in the Federal budget for fiscal 2005, he helped arrange the delivery of $646 million worth of pork to his state. That works out to almost a thousand bucks per Alaskan. Should pigs ever fly, if the senator has anything to say about it, many of them doubtless will be re-routed through the aforementioned Ted Stevens International Airport.

What the state calls "Stevens money" has gone for schools and health care, oil pipelines, highways and railroad terminals, communications and tourist facilities, among many other projects. For example, although vague in its purpose, the Alaskan Fisheries Marketing Board (whose board members include a former Stevens aide and Stevens' son, Ben) received $29 million of Federal largesse, $500,000 of which was spent to paint an enormous salmon on the side of an Alaska Airlines jet.

Perhaps most infamously, late last year saw Stevens' attempts to allocate $452 million for two Alaskan bridge projects, one of which was the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere," connecting Ketchikan, Alaska (population: 8900) with Gravina Island (population: 50). The money, it was pointed out, could have bought each Gravina resident his or her own private jet. Many of the Senator's constituents felt it would be better spent for post-Katrina reconstruction, but Stevens was adamant, threatening to resign or to be taken out of the Senate on a stretcher. Outraged public opinion and cooler heads prevailed; Alaska still got the money but the bridges have to compete for it with other infrastructure projects.

Senator Steven's beneficence is facilitated by his devotion to "earmarks," the line items for each congressmen's pet pork projects slipped into appropriations legislation, often at the last minute and in secret. The transportation bill that included the cash for the Bridge to Nowhere had $24 billion worth of them. Since 1994, the year Republicans won back the House, the number of earmarks has quadrupled; they're an irresistible way to reward the high rollers who fund campaigns for re-election.

One of the potentially more effective proposals being put forward in the current rush for reform is to make earmarks more transparent -- not allowing them to be hidden in attachments to bills and clearly identifying their sponsors.

As part of any effort to end corruption, such change can't come too soon, although Senator Stevens might hope it will scuttle away, crab-fashion, onto the garbage scow of dead good ideas.

Just two weeks ago, 30 Federal agents in Fairbanks, Alaska, raided the home and offices of former Mayor Jim Hayes and his wife, looking for possible evidence that they misused $2.9 million in government funds -- grants for a community youth services center. The money was earmarked for the center in HUD appropriations bills, courtesy of their pal, the crustacean-like Senator Stevens.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

© 2006 Michael Winship and Messenger Post Newspapers

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