By Joe Conason
For an object lesson in the distorted values of the United States Senate, consider how that august institution is handling the ethical embarrassments created by Republican Larry Craig of Idaho and Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska.
As everyone in America knows by now, Craig pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for an indiscretion in an airport men’s room. Stevens, along with his son Ben and a number of other Alaska politicians and businessmen, is the subject of a corruption investigation that resulted in an FBI raid on his home last summer. Every day, Craig’s colleagues apply more pressure for him to resign—and every day, those same colleagues treat Stevens as if he remains above suspicion.
The Craig case is currently under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, yet no such probe of the Stevens matter has commenced. According to the prevailing morality in the Senate, a legislator who may or may not have signaled his prurient interest in another man demands the most searching scrutiny, but a legislator who quite plainly accepted financial favors from a contractor deserves none.
Now Craig’s colleagues feel a special sense of outrage because he has violated his promise to resign by the end of September if he was unable to get his original guilty plea withdrawn. Clearly, the senator is given to rash gestures that he later regrets, whether tapping the toe of another man in a toilet stall, entering a plea or vowing to surrender his Senate seat.
“I wish he would stick to his word,” complained Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who chairs the National Republican Senate Committee and understandably does not relish the bad publicity that makes his task of re-electing Republicans much more challenging. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a freshman Republican up for re-election next year, told reporters that he hoped the Idahoan would step down and “respect the institution.”
But the institution is not so easy to respect when its members show so little of it by ignoring the stench that surrounds Stevens.
The 83-year-old Alaskan, a powerhouse of patronage and seniority, has operated both his state and the Senate Appropriations Committee as fiefdoms that he can use and misuse at will. When his sponsorship of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” drew condemnation from conservatives and liberals alike as an example of egregious pork spending, Stevens gave a furious floor speech in which he threatened to resign. He stopped a “sunlight” provision designed to reveal the sponsorship of every earmark. Such egotistical displays must be expected from a politician who has the largest airport in his state named after him.
A platoon of FBI agents has passed through that airport over the past several months as they probe bribery and corruption that appear to implicate dozens of figures, from the statehouse to the oil industry. (How bad is it? Bad enough that a group of Republican legislators, including the former speaker of the Alaskan House, smugly called themselves “the Corrupt Bastards Club.”) These crooks transformed their state into an American version of a Third World petroleum kleptocracy.
At the center of the scandal is Bill Allen, a former oil services executive who pleaded guilty last May to bribery and extortion charges. Since then he has become a major prosecution witness in the probe. His sworn confessions include an accounting of the costly renovations made to one of Stevens’ homes by his company, as well as other allegedly illegal favors provided to the senator and his son.
The Alaska senator has scarcely deigned to address the Allen investigation, except to insist that he has done nothing wrong and will be vindicated. His son Ben went further, complaining publicly about the prosecutors because they have come from “out of state” and are “not from Alaska”—and presumably also not loyal to the local political machine that has allowed corruption to flourish there.
But no matter what Stevens or his son may say, the Justice Department, which has put Allen on the witness stand, must believe that the oilman is telling the truth about the favors he did for the senator. Those favors clearly violate Senate rules—and are by any measure much worse than the toe-tapping indiscretions of Craig. When will members restore the Senate’s own tattered prestige by opening an ethics investigation of Stevens? Their failure to deal with his disgrace raises questions about their own probity—and all the favors that he may have done for them in his powerful appropriations post.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.
© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.