Campaigning under the cloud of federal investigations is tough enough, but could Sen. Ted Stevens or Rep. Don Young have the added worries of an indictment before they face the voters of Alaska?
It’s been 21 months since the federal corruption investigation surfaced in Alaska with a series of dramatic raids on legislative and other offices. Eight cases have been brought, resulting in convictions in all but one — and that matter is still pending.
No one outside the government is privy to where the investigation is headed and whether it will eventually lead to charges against Stevens and Young, who deny wrongdoing but who won’t discuss specifics about the allegations.
It remains especially difficult to charge members of Congress for matters related to legislation. The Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause offers a broad shield against interference by the Justice Department and other agencies of the executive branch into how a congressman might have created, for example, an earmark that benefited a campaign contributor, family member or former aide — matters that are part of the investigations of Young and Stevens.
Last year, that clause was cited by an appeals court in tossing out evidence seized by the FBI in a raid on the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., the congressman famous for keeping $90,000 in marked bills in his home freezer.
Yet the government is pressing ahead, with grand juries continuing to hear evidence in at least Anchorage and Washington, D.C.
Questions about the timing of future indictments, should more be handed up by the grand juries, are being heard with increasing frequency in Alaska as the investigation drags on in relative secrecy and the elections approach. It’s just three months to the Republican primary, where both Stevens and Young face opponents, and just over five months to the general election, where strong Democratic challengers await.
The Justice Department’s policy manual for U.S. attorneys doesn’t impose any restrictions on the timing of indictments in public corruption cases. A department spokeswoman in Washington, Laura Sweeney, said such decisions are made on a “case-by-case basis,” much like the other factors that go into whether to indict or not.
The Alaska investigation is being managed by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, a headquarters unit of career prosecutors noted for working on its own timetable and setting its own priorities. But that section also has a record of not bringing cases against sitting politicians in the immediate run-up to an election.
Stevens, 84, is the longest-serving Republican senator. His Girdwood home was searched last summer by FBI and IRS agents investigating his connection to Bill Allen, the chairman of the now-defunct oil field services company Veco. That firm managed and paid some of the employees who worked on renovations that doubled the size of Stevens’ home in 2000.
Young, 74, has never lost an election since he gained office in a special election in March 1973, when he replaced Rep. Nick Begich, the father of Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who vanished on a flight from Anchorage and was never found. Young is a subject of at least two federal investigations: the Veco case and an earmark he introduced for a highway interchange in Florida sought by a campaign contributor. Young is also connected to the long-running investigation of super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now in federal prison.
Investigations don’t necessarily mean charges will be brought. Many more elected officials have been investigated than have been indicted. Yet political damage has already been done.
“A politician like Stevens or Young who is under investigation during an election year is in deep trouble,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and a frequent media analyst. “It really does affect the likelihood of re-election.”
“The feds are very conscious of what they’re doing in an election year, and they know that if they indict or even investigate a senator or a congressman during an election year, they are significantly reducing his chance of re-election,” Sabato said by telephone last week. “But the law applies equally to everyone, and whether it’s convenient timing or not, the process goes forward. I’m sure it’s tough on Stevens and Young, but they’ve had a lot of good luck too.”
A review of about 20 federal indictments of sitting senators and representatives going back to the FBI’s Abscam sting in 1980 shows that, in most cases, charges preceded elections by more than six months. A handful of cases were brought less than five months before the general election, and two congressmen were charged less than a month before they ran in primaries.
Most of the targeted officials either quit or were voted out of office.
(E-mail Richard Mauer at rmauer(at)adn.com)