It is ironic how often great malefactors get tripped up on matters that seem picayune by comparison. Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has for decades had a reputation as one of the most shameless, unapologetic and relentless pork barrelers in Congress.
Sen. Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the Senate — since 1968 — acts as if his main mission is to raid the federal treasury for the benefit of friends and special interests in Alaska.
The most blatant example of course, was the unnecessary and inordinately expensive “bridge to nowhere,” from a small town to a virtually uninhabited island that he wanted federal taxpayers to fund — though to be fair, the funding went nowhere once it was widely publicized.
Still, between 1999 and 2007, he brought some $3 billion in earmarks — pet projects of legislators funded outside the normal budget process — to various Alaska projects.
So what does he get nailed for in a seven-count federal grand jury indictment handed down Tuesday? Failing to report a bunch of work done for free on a vacation home in the small ski resort in Girdwood, southeast of Anchorage.
To be sure, it was extensive work. The first floor was put on stilts so a new first floor could be built, along with a fancy wraparound deck, a new garage, a premium gas grill, plumbing, electrical, and trading an old Ford for a new Land Rover for one of his kids.
It amounted to $250,000 worth of renovation. The work was allegedly done by Veco, an oil services company, with whom the senator met about projects in Pakistan and Russia and about “multiple federal grants and contracts to benefit Veco,” according to the indictment.
But Stevens wasn’t even charged with accepting bribes, simply for not reporting these gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms (of course he has the presumption of innocence).
Compared to the billions of dollars he’s snagged for projects of dubious worth in Alaska — being chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee when the GOP had a majority didn’t hurt — it’s almost penny-ante.
Perhaps it shows that when it comes to politicians, the most reprehensible things they do are the things that are perfectly legal.
The fallout in November could be devastating to the Republican Party, however. Another GOP leader, who was already facing a tough re-election fight, mired in scandal.
Democrats, who now hold a slim 51-49 majority (thanks to two nominal independents who caucus with them) and figured to pick up four to six seats, are now rubbing their hands at the possibility of getting a filibuster-proof majority of 60 after the November elections. The spending and regulation implications are momentous.
If Sen. Stevens has any residual sense of honor, he would resign now.