Attorney General Eric Holder has dropped the charges against Ted Stevens. Here are statements from Holder and from Steven's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly. Clearly there has been prosecutorial misconduct of a major order. Career Justice Department lawyers, going wild in their self-righteousness; at least that's what it looks like.
The former senator is no longer a convicted felon, so I guess Alaskans are not going to rename Ted Stevens International Airport or to rescind his award several years ago as Alaskan of the century. I have felt a certain sympathy for him all along. No, he shouldn't have asked lobbyist William Allen to superintend the reconstruction of his house in Girdwood. He should have hired a contractor. But did he have criminal intent when he paid all the bills presented to him and did not report additional amounts as gifts on his Senate disclosure forms? I never thought so and was surprised when the jury voted to convict. He took the stand himself, and I gather was not a good witness.
But the former senator is also a former senator. Stevens lost the 2008 election to Democrat Mark Begich, the Mayor of Anchorage and a respectable candidate who treated Stevens respectfully and acknowledged his many past accomplishments. Begich's margin of victory was 48-47 percent. We can be as sure as we could about any counterfactual that if Stevens had not been convicted he would have been reelected. This would mean the Democrats would be one senator further from the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Republicans would be furious if Stevens had been prosecuted by a Democratic administration. But, inconveniently, he was prosecuted by a Republican administration. And it was a Democratic Attorney General who handsomely admitted error and dropped the case. Eric Holder may be making some decisions on political grounds, like his decision to reject the advice of the Office of Legal Counsel that the D.C. congressional voting bill is unconstitutional and accept instead the advice of the solicitor general's office that it would be defensible in court, a much lower standard. And we can criticize Holder for his conduct in connection with the Marc Rich and other Clinton pardons. But we can't say that he's a complete political hack. He showed himself to be something much better than that when he dropped the case against Stevens.
In his statement Holder made reference to Stevens's long career. Appropriately, I think. Stevens served as a pilot in World War II--very hazardous duty, at a young age. He moved to Alaska after the war and worked in the Eisenhower administration Interior Department on Alaska affairs. He was appointed to the Senate in December 1968 and elected senator by wide margins in 1970, 1972, 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2002. He has been attacked for securing pork barrel projects for Alaska and it is true that federal funding there is often referred to as "Stevens money." But the famed Bridge to Nowhere was not, originally, his project, but that of Congressman Don Young who placed it in the 2005 transportation bill.
More important, Stevens played a key role in installing long-term public policies which have turned out to be, in my opinion at least, wise. One of those was securing passage, by one vote, of the bill to allow construction of the Alaska oil pipeline. Without it there would be no North Slope oil production. Another was the Alaska Native Claims Act, which set up Native corporations which have turned out to be the best legal framework for handling the situation of aboriginal Americans, allowing them to choose how to live somewhere on the continuum between the traditional native lifestyle and the ordinary American lifestyle. Stevens tended to the problems of Alaska natives and of just about every other group in Alaska assiduously, not agreeing to every group's requests but paying careful attention to them and making their own judgments. Some of us Outside (Alaskans' term for every place outside Alaska) may snicker at Stevens's award as Alaskan of the Century or the decision to put his name on the Anchorage airport. I think there's a good justification for them.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.