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Busting Alaska's 'Corrupt Bastards Club'

Karl Vick
Washington Post Los Angeles Bureau Chief
Monday, November 12, 2007 3:00 PM

Washington Post Los Angeles bureau chief Karl Vick was online Monday, Nov. 12 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the FBI's investigation of oil lobbyist-funded corruption in Alaskan state politics, and how it could impact the state's congressional delegation, particularly Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens.

The transcript follows.

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Karl Vick: Holiday greetings, and thanks for dropping in. I'm writing from my desk in the Post's Los Angeles bureau, from which I get to cover the whole of the western United States. And, in this in this case, the northern. Let's see what's in the mailbag....

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Jackson Hole, Wyo.: What triggers an investigation into a senator or congressman by the FBI? Is this a symptom of much wider corruption by the oil lobby than we have seen in the past?

Karl Vick: Always a good question, that, and the answer is often as shrouded in the mists as the behavior that captures the attention of the gatekeepers at the Public Integrity Section of the US Department of Justice. The office, plus the FBI, and the U.S. attorney's office are

Some inklings may emerge in prosecutions yet to come, as FBI agents and others involved in tracking down the wrongdoing take the stand and account for themselves. But the short answer is that there's been a cloud over Alaskan politics for a while now, one remarked upon by the state's news media and no end of insiders but in some respects taken as just part of the scenery, like the one the brown one over the LA basin.

The Anchorage Daily News did, in fact, make numerous runs at the story, but with the power of subpoena and surveillance or the leverage of time in the big house there comes a point where journalists will break their fingernails trying to lay hands on a story that seems to be right in front of them.

And I can't mention the Daily News without plugging their excellent Web site. It has posted a great deal of the video clips, phone wiretaps and documents in the case, really creating a virtual courtroom, or at least evidence table. It's a very rich experience, and not without hilarity. While away a few hours online there and save a couple of reporters' jobs why doncha? We could all use the eggs.

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San Jose, Calif.: Will be oil companies be held responsible for providing funds that greased the political wheels they drew direct benefit from?

Karl Vick: Ah, but there's no evidence that any of the oil companies that benefited from the ever-so-strenuous lobbying effort of Mr. Allen and his company (which has come under new ownership and been renamed). VECO was clearly the cat's paw of the industry in political circles, taking the lead in campaign contributions and indulging in the rough and tumble so vividly seen and described in these prosecutions. It appears to have been widely understood in Juneau -- and not just in the bugged suite -- that what VECO wanted was what the big firms wanted. But as yet there's no trail leading from Allen to the offices or officers of the big multinationals. It's widely understood that VECO clearly was in the oil-services business in more than once sense of the phrase but more than that we cannot say.

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New Boston, N.H.: Is there any talk that the Alaska oil scandal reaches into the Oval Office or Cheney's office? Would that be the taint that finally sticks to this president and leads to impeachment?

Karl Vick: No talk that's reached me. No suggestion at all, though this administration's identification with the industry is what it is. This does seem to be an Alaska-specific case, as described in court documents. There's been fairly little that's leaked on it, either, doubtless because it's ongoing and so extremely sensitive politically. The big names of Alaska politics, Stevens and Young, are not so small in Washington, either, not after all their time in office.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: What is your guess as to why there hasn't been more pressure on Ted Stevens to resign? The facts alone convict him. Anyone with even a moderate amount of building experience can calculate that the remodeling of his chalet far exceeds the amount that he says he was billed for and paid for out of his own pocket.

Karl Vick: From Fairbanks you surely have a better sense of this than someone who spent little more than a week in the great state. But my sense is there's two elements at play.

One is the clear signals that this investigation has yet to run it's course. The parts of it we've seen so far do not appear to describe its total scope, and trying to guess at that would be just that, a guess. The most visible implied involvement of Ted Stevens in the scandal was the raid of his Girdwood home, the A-frame that doubled in size in a renovation that Allen and VECO apparently oversaw and perhaps paid for (it's not clear yet).

Some of the people I talked to in Anchorage, political insider types, seemed inclined to give the senior Stevens the benefit of the doubt on the house. "A guy like Ted is real busy," one of them said. "You can't be bothered with every detail." At the same time, they acknowledge that giving a senator a pass like that also means condoning the coziness it also implies and the distance from the concerns of real life that govern the lives of most of us. If my house was being renovated, I'm just guessing I'd know who was paying for it.

All that said, folks also seemed to think he faced bigger problems on the fisheries side of things.

The other factor is Ted Stevens' immense power. The federal money that goes to Alaska -- more per capita than any other state -- is widely called "Stevens Money." People joke calling dollar bills the "Ted" and putting his face on it. Even folks who don't like him say they worry the state would take a hit if he wasn't in Washington directing the sluices.

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Richmond, Va.: Has the GOP always had a stranglehold on power in Alaska? Do you think when one party has all the power they naturally fall into the arrogant trap of corruption?

Karl Vick: Not always but then Alaska hasn't been a state but half a century or so. And in fact it elects the occasional Democrat to the governor's chair.

But it is what is, with the self-image it has, of a big rough and tough Frontier. You find Democrats in Anchorage and Homer and a few other pockets, but the essential identity appears to be GOP. Within that, the spectrum ranges. The current governor ran as a reformer and as a Republican. No one had any trouble reconciling the two.

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Chicago: Bust this club! I have rallied many years with First Nation Peoples and Americans and Canadians across the grid to protect Alaskan Wilderness: the sacred Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, caribou calving grounds, Tongass and Chugach national rainforests, Teshekpuk Lake wetlands...

The short-term greed of oil-extraction will be the root cause of our extinction. How long will stupid (heads-in-the-sand) humans allow this? Perhaps by natural selection, such overdevelopment of CO2-producing fossil fuels will rid the Earth of us. The Youngs and Stevenses of Alaska and elsewhere should gather with their war chests and profits and repair the land forthwith, to see to it that it be preserved as the invaluable, irreplaceable supply of clean air, water and living ecosystem that it is.

Karl Vick: What we have here is the perspective from Outside, which is what Alaskans call the Lower 48 or, really, anywhere else. It's striking how uniformly outraged Alaska residents are with the political scandal -- and they really are every bit as appalled as they are amused (by the Corrupt Bastards stuff and the Viagra, etc; we tried to get all the candy into the story).

But the sharpest disappointment I heard over and over was that it took the FBI to come in and clear up Alaska's own mess. This was a real blow. It challenged the operative assumption of Us vs. Them, a tension that usually plays over over these resource and environment issues you mention. Alaskans are generally and strongly in favor of drilling in the refuge, for instance, and their lawmakers' efforts to pass federal legislation permitting same come with broad backing. Resources are something most Alaskans see as something to be tapped; their relationship with the wild is not very sentimental as a rule.

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Bethel, Alaska: One of the state legislators' defenses in the federal trials -- not particularly successful so far -- has been "we would have cast the same pro-industry votes even if VECO hadn't been giving us money." Legal merits aside, isn't that basically true, and won't it turn out to be even more true in Ted Stevens's case? He's found money for just about everyone in Alaska, regardless of creed or color.

Karl Vick: That may well be a true statement, right? He was going to buy a Toyota anyway, but why not get the rebate? What's striking about some of these video tapes and other surveillance is what supplicants some of the lawmakers were to the lobbyists, and how pathetically grateful. One of them, seated in a bar-restaurant, takes the payment from an undercover agent and spread his hands wide: "Oh, jeez, what can I say?" Unbecoming on several levels, really.

Your point on Steven is well taken, and underscores a larger point about the architecture of power and money in the state. The federal investigation basically takes in Oil Money, Fisheries and political dynasties that have dominated electoral power in the state by delivering these great wads of cash from Washington.

Ted Stevens has done a great deal for Alaska, not least its strikingly vibrant native population. The question is what else that power has brought. As the Daily News first documented, the senator brought the Special Olympics to Alaska a few years ago. And the Special Olympics paid his son, Ben, more than $700,000 to serve as the local head. Alaskans say that sent a powerful message about influence and nepotism; they also say it's hard to find anyone locally contributing to that particular charity any more.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: What is the FBI waiting for? Ben Stevens is guilty, now working in the Gulf of Alaska for an oil company. Ted Stevens has no comment. Don Young is spending more than he is worth in legal fees.

Karl Vick: No one is quite sure. Ben Stevens, in his call to the radio station mentioned in the story, alluded to pressure from investigators and prosecutors to plea bargain. And he is, in point of fact, the person most clearly implicated, identified not by name but unmistakably in indictments as allegedly receiving bribes.

It truly is a work in progress, this one.

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Lackawanna, N.Y.: Assume that there are in fact actual indictments against Sen. Stevens, his son and a number of other prominent Republicans (your story seems to imply that the problem lies largely with the Republicans, perhaps because they are in power). Is there a coherent Democratic presence in the state capable of taking advantage of the situation, or is replacement with other Republicans more likely?

Karl Vick: Howdy Lackawanna. I always find myself wondering if that's a place name or some Native American word for ennui. But to answer your question, or at least poke at it a little:

Yes, the elected folks scooped up in the scandal so far are all Republicans. This may reflect on the party, or on the fact that most of the people Alaska elects to office are Republicans and so it's just harder to find Democrats to try to bribe. (And why would you try, since they don't have any power?)

As for fallout, the Dems gained seats in the statehouse in the same election that brought Palin into the governor's chair on her reform platform. So it stands to reasons voters would continue to look on them more favorably, perhaps especially if the openings come in Washington, where Democratic control of Congress would enhance a Democratic candidate's appeal as a potential shoveler of the beloved federal funds.

Though I also get the sense that personality plays a pretty substantial role in Alaska. It's not a big state in terms of population -- smaller than the typical congressional district.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Good story today. Of course, Alaskans long have known these characters. Alaska politics wasn't always like this -- there were even Democrats in power in the old days! Of course, I was attending West Anchorage High School then (the late '60s), but we still remember them. But easy money and easy morals make easy legislation. So what else is new? When are the Feds going to indict Ben Stevens for his fishing industry fraud and games? By the way: Too bad you weren't around for the Lewis Dischner and North Slope Borough corruption days. Big money back then (early '80s). The borough had a $1 billion public works program then! Yes, B as in Billion. Thanks much.

Karl Vick: With a "B" you say? Land o' Goshen.

There's a grace note if ever I heard one. Apologies for those whose queries I didn't get to, and for putting the Petroleum Club in Juneau where the locals don't seem to want it at all. Can't wait to get up and make my apologies in person.

Thanks for tuning in.

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