Alaska GOP Shaken by Corruption Inquiry A widening federal corruption inquiry has uncovered evidence linking some of Alaska's lawmakers to bribes in exchange for support on bills backed by energy companies. Sen. Ted Stevens says the FBI wants to see some of his records.
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Alaska GOP Shaken by Corruption Inquiry

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Alaska GOP Shaken by Corruption Inquiry

Alaska GOP Shaken by Corruption Inquiry

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A major scandal in Alaska politics is showing signs of boiling over to the federal level. The FBI is investigating state legislators taking bribes bribery, and it may also be looking at one lawmaker's father, Ted Stevens, the senior Republican from that state in the U.S. Senate.

NPR's Martin Kaste has the story from Anchorage.

MARTIN KASTE: Technically, this is still just a state corruption scandal.

Unidentified Man #1: House, please come to order.

KASTE: Four members of last year's Alaska House of Representatives have been charged with taking bribes. According to the indictments, three of them were doing the bidding of the oil industry. Suspicions were already bubbling up last year during a vote to revamp the state's oil tax. When one Republican abruptly changed his position, a Democrat, Ethan Berkowitz, stood up in frustration.

State Representative ETHAN BERKOWITZ (Democrat, Alaska): This is our floor, our floor. No telephone call is supposed to change what we're doing. No lobbyist is supposed to appear over the arraignment and tell us to change our mind.

KASTE: It now seems that that's exactly what was going on, according to the federal indictments. After that legislation passed, two oil executives confessed to bribery. They even admitted that they dictated one lawmaker's vote via his cell phone.

The four legislators, three former and one current, are fighting the charges. Republican Vic Kohring goes on trial in October.

State Representative VICTOR KOHRING (Republican, Alaska): I feel like in my heart, I haven't done anything wrong, and that these charges are unjustified. And I hope I'm able to demonstrate that in court, to the folks that will sit on the jury.

KASTE: But Kohring and the others aren't getting a lot of moral support from their colleagues. This week, the House and Senate held a special session in Anchorage. Republican John Coghill says there's a black cloud hanging over lawmakers.

State Representative JOHN COGHILL (Republican, Alaska): You have to keep your chin up, try to keep from being defensive and explain that was them, this is me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: But despite the scandal, Alaska lawmakers are not about to kick the oil companies out of the capital. Coghill says the state is just too dependent on the industry.

State Rep. COGHILL: Remember, they represent 80 percent of the state government's income. They are the biggest industry in Alaska.

KASTE: Still, oil production is declining in Alaska, and people in this boom and bust economy are worried about locking in that next boom. Many here hope that it'll be natural gas. And lawmakers are trying to entice the oil industry into building a major new gas pipeline.

On the sidewalk outside the special legislative session, Ellen Fronfield(ph) is part of a group calling for more money for seniors. She says she suspects the rot goes beyond the four indicted legislators.

Ms. ELLEN FRONFIELD: History sort of tells you that only the, I hate say, dumbest ones get caught but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRONFIELD: ...there have been other implications - not proven - but we'll just see how time plays out.

KASTE: That's a reference to a couple of other legislators who had their offices raided by the FBI last fall, and who might still face charges.

Most prominent is Ben Stevens, the former president of the state Senate. An oil executive has admitted to paying him bogus consulting fees. Ben Stevens is the son of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, the biggest name in Alaska politics. Ted Stevens has been around since the beginning. He was part of the push for statehood in the '50s. And in his four decades in the U.S. Senate, he's brought home millions in federal projects. When you fly to Anchorage, you land at Ted Stevens International. Locals just call him Uncle Ted.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, he's probably still Uncle Ted. Maybe he's that cranky old uncle now than the friendly old uncle.

KASTE: Even a Democrat, like state Senator Hollis French does not think this scandal is likely to hurt Stevens.

State Senator HOLLIS FRENCH (Democrat, Alaska): You don't hear people sort of railing about Ted Stevens. So you don't see the letters to the editor, you don't hear it happening on a talk radio. It's a long way from that.

KASTE: But the investigation might still have a long way to go. A grand jury is now reportedly looking in to an oil executive's involvement in the remodeling project on Ted Stevens' house. The senator has responded with a statement, citing what he calls his long-standing policy not to comment on such matters.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Anchorage.

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