The nomination of Sarah Palin for the Republican vice-presidential ticket has brought a lot of media attention to the Alaskan political scene. But while Palin's record and past deeds are being combed over by all and sundry, there are plenty of other scandals worth looking into up in the Last Frontier State. For instance, there is the case of Senator Ted Stevens. And I mean "case" quite literally, since Stevens is currently running for re-election -- while simultaneously defending himself against corruption charges in a federal court case. Whenever the verdict in the Stevens case comes in, it will doubtlessly cause another flurry of media attention northwards.
For those interested in the backstory of the octopus-like reach of the VECO corruption investigation, there is currently no better inside look at the entire mess than the amazing new book Last Bridge To Nowhere, by author Frank Prewitt. Prewitt has a unique perspective on the entire mess, since he was the F.B.I.'s "Confidential Source #1" throughout the evidence-gathering phase of the long-running investigation. Codenamed "Patient," Prewitt spent countless hours documenting sleazy deals, payoffs, bribes, and other shenanigans; often wearing a wire and taping encounters to provide court evidence.
To date, the F.B.I.'s conviction record is impressive. The complete and detailed list is posted on my website, and includes (as of this writing): three felony convictions of Alaskan State Representatives; five guilty pleas from government and oil company executives; two trials which are pending, for an Alaskan State Senator and an Alaskan State Representative; the ongoing trial of United States Senator Ted Stevens; and at least eight others who have not yet been indicted (but probably will be soon), from United States Representative Don Young to former Alaskan State Senator Ben Stevens (son of Ted) to other assorted state officials and oil executives. That's a pretty impressive track record for such an investigation into high-level government corruption (which is often extremely hard to prove in court). One of the main reasons these cases have been as successful as they have been is Frank Prewitt's testimony and evidence.
Which, as I said, gives him a rather unique perspective, both on the ongoing corruption cases, as well as on the political landscape of Alaskan politics. I was able to talk to him recently about his book, Sarah Palin, Ted Stevens, and the political scene from the frozen tundra.
His book, which has been attacked by local critics as "fiction" and a "hagiography" is actually a great read. The subject matter is dense and filled with platoons of shady characters, but Prewitt tells his first-hand story in a surprisingly engaging manner, with plenty of laugh-out-loud humorous moments. For instance, just touching lightly on the entire culture of corruption which has seemed to define the Republican Party for the past few years, Prewitt drops a few names, and then quickly moves on [emphasis in original]:
"KRSA hosts the annual Kenai King Salmon Fishing Classic fundraiser for Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski who then invite other influential members of Congress and well-heeled guests for a good time on the river. Every summer, without Delay, privileged guests cast their Lott to Duke it out on Craig's list of salmon-slammin' anglers, far Inouye the best event of the summer, unless you count Don Young's Cunning ham pork roast (sorry, I couldn't help myself)."
His natural humor breaks the story up enough to make it a narrative rather than a dry historical chain of events. There are plenty of Alaskanisms throughout the text, such as when he describes attending the weather at the start of the Iditarod as being "so cold out Starbucks was serving coffee on a stick." There's even a Glossary of Alaska Terms and Phrases at the back, full of such gems as:
Bear Repellent -- The ability to run faster than your fishing or hiking partner
Midnight Sun -- A large, bright object in the sky that enables Alaskans to play softball, fish, and hike in the middle of the night during the summer
Outside -- Where Alaskans travel and everyone else is from
Summer -- An semi-annual event that usually occurs around July
But, as any astute reader of my columns would have guessed, my favorite was:
Nugget -- 1. Moose poop (really) 2. A large chunk of gold in its natural state that Alaskans carry in a pocket, wear on a wristwatch, or hang from a neck
Ahem. In any case, the rest of the book is just as enjoyable, which must have been hard to do given the subject matter (which is so sleazy and slimy it makes you want to take a shower after reading).
While the book, written late last year and earlier this year, only mentions Governor Sarah Palin in passing reference (and not unkindly -- no matter what else you think of her, she really was a breath of fresh air in Alaska, after the rancid corruption which preceded her), it is still worth reading for anyone interested in how Alaska dethroned Louisiana as "America's Most Corrupt State Government."
Prewitt's book can be ordered through his webpage www.lastbridgetonowhere.com or through other online sellers. You can also see a short biography there, as well as read excerpts from his book. I interviewed Prewitt this past weekend.
[Full disclosure: While not compensated in any other way for writing this article, I did receive a free media review copy of his book, at my request. This is standard journalistic practice, but I wanted to be upfront about it.]
Did you have to get any special permission from the F.B.I. to write your book? Were they concerned that it might let a few cats out of the bag before they're ready to present cases in court?
No, I didn't need permission and yes, there was concern, but the story needed to be told. I worked closely enough with the Bureau over the years to have a good feel for the kind of information that could compromise on-going investigations, get Department of Justice people in trouble for talking too much, or embarrass the government. They did express concern that I try to be as general as possible describing their surveillance technology and investigation strategies, but I didn't offer, nor did they ask to edit the transcript. For all the cynicism about government these days, I find it hard to express in words how impressed I am with the integrity, fair play and work ethic displayed by the D.O.J. agents, attorneys and support staff I had the privilege of working with.
In all candor, the book would have been twice as long if I could have talked about people who don't know they were (or are), as the Bureau says, "persons-of-interest." That statement alone should generate some sleepless northern nights. But the omissions I most regret are the gaffes, serendipity, one-liners, and out-takes that occur during covert operations between agents, techies, perps, confidential sources, and the public. In spite of the tragic nature of the cases and serious implications for public policy (which would make an excellent documentary) it was the stuff of award-winning comedy. Who knows, when it's all over maybe I can share my experience in full detail. And I assure you that statement will generate sleepless nights for my friends in the F.B.I.
Critics of your book have labeled it "fiction" and said that you "made up quotes" in it, largely to cash in on your notoriety. How do you answer such criticisms?
The critics are less than a handful, albeit organized and vocal... guess I must have stepped on a toe or two. The book is a journal of my experience and observations working as the confidential source who spent nearly four years helping the F.B.I. pry the lid open on the sordid world of political corruption in Alaska and Washington, D.C. In the process I lost some friends and acquired others. But at nearly sixty, I'm a little embarrassed I haven't trampled a few more deserving toes in my lifetime.
As I say clearly in my Author's Note, the dialogue is from unedited recorded transcripts, personal recollection and reasonable inference drawn from intimate contextual knowledge and conversations. Some call the literary genre "creative non-fiction" which gives me literary license to make the book interesting. My narrative was intended to allow normal people to place the entire sad history in context with what they have been reading and hearing in second-hand media coverage over the past several years. I did not intend to write a jaw-stretching scholastic yawner, or meticulously-footnoted treatise of investigative journalism. I don't have to, I was there. Any diligent reader can confirm the events, I simply fill in the background. You know, "the rest of the story."
Were Alaskan State Congressmen really brazen enough to wear baseball caps emblazoned with "CBC" (for the "Corrupt Bastards Club") on the floor of the State Legislature, or is that an urban myth?
I do not know whether the VECO guys or some legislators actually wore "CBC" hats during legislative sessions. It seems that would be wider knowledge if it had occurred. But the hats existed, and were seized during the searches from various people-of-interest, and a lot of legislators dismissed them at the time as just a Friday-night-at-the-bar joke. Some are no longer laughing. But the Corrupt Bastards Club hats did exist and were possessed with pride by the select indicted and unindicted legislators who supported VECO and the major oil producers.
How good a chance do you think Alaskan Democrats have to make gains this year on the state government level? Do you think Alaskans in general are getting tired of Republicans and are looking for a change, or is this a momentary pendulum-swing that will quickly revert back to Republicans dominating the state government again?
I doubt that we will see much change in the balance of political power in Alaska. Alaska has a population of 670,000 and half reside in Anchorage and outlying areas, so most Alaska cities are small, close-knit communities. Whether your politically-ambitious neighbor runs as a "D" or an "R," you know a lot about their character, and it's weakness of character that spawns abuse of power. There are sixty members in the Alaska legislature and a small handful of indictees, mostly from Anchorage. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a huge margin and the nonpartisan vote nearly equals Republican. Most Alaska Republicans are disgusted over the corruption scandal and overwhelmingly embraced dumping the incumbent Republican governor in favor of a small-town mayor who stood up to party bosses. But I don't believe the disgust will splash on many Republicans running for office this year, because they are known by their neighbors. Thankfully, Republicans and Democrats in Alaska appear to be re-examining their core beliefs and practices in context with the political corruption scandal and emerging global crisis. Alaska is a land of extremes, and people who separate on the basis of race, religion or political affiliation eventually find themselves alone on an ice floe.
What do you think the outcome will be in Senator Ted Stevens' ongoing trial?
I think there will be a conviction. But even if the jury acquits Senator Stevens for accepting and failing to report one quarter of a million dollars in gifts, the real damage lies in the past decade of special interest favoritism and unjust insider enrichment that has been exposed through the course of the investigation... a breach of trust that places a cloud over his entire career.
Do you think Stevens will be re-elected, or will Mark Begich unseat him?
The most recent polls show Begich and Stevens in a neck-and-neck race. In Alaska Stevens is fondly referred to as "Uncle Ted." There are many who believe the investigation was politically motivated to put a Democrat into Stevens' U.S. Senate seat. Since the investigation started on President Bush's watch, we may have to chalk that notion up to the fact that Alaska is home to a disproportionate population of conspiracy theorists. The fact that an indicted U.S. Senator can make this strong a showing in the polls is evidence that Stevens has helped out a lot of Alaskans over the years, and they will stand by him regardless of his current troubles. Though you must admit, it's easier to rationalize if you think the investigation was politically motivated.
It seems Representative Don Young is going to make it to the election without being indicted. Is there a reason for this delay, or is the case against him too weak to prosecute right now?
Public corruption cases are very complex, particularly when the case involves a high-profile politician. While the resources of the federal government are immense, these cases are being managed by a small team of U.S. Attorneys and F.B.I. special agents from Alaska and Washington, D.C. Since most corruption cases have a five-year statute of limitations, the federal government has a practice of taking its time. This has partly to do with the right to a speedy trial, which kicks in after arrest or indictment. The speedy trial right triggers discovery of evidence that can compromise other related investigations, so the government is very careful how and when they proceed with prosecution. The $1.2 million in criminal defense attorney fees that Don Young has spent over the past two years may be some indication of the strength of the government's case.
Do you think Young will be re-elected?
Hopefully not. In my opinion Congressman Young is the poster child for political atrophy. If we, as a nation, want to remain divided, rather than united, demeaning rather than uplifting, arrogant rather than humble, crude rather than respectful, and follow rather than lead... then we should continue to elect the Don Youngs of our communities to public office. Personally, I think we can do better.
Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin is no more than a minor, even peripheral figure in your book, obviously because when you wrote it nobody knew she would become the Republican candidate for Vice President. If I'm not mistaken, there are even a few words of praise in the book for her (p.150), quote: "Recently Alaskans voted for change by electing a new, transparent governor to replace the Good Ol' Boy closed-door policies of the past." [emphasis in original] Has your opinion of Palin changed any in the past year?
Yes. Until recently Governor Palin has enjoyed the highest bipartisan approval rate of a sitting governor in U.S. history. Of course, she followed in the footsteps of former U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski who, as governor, amassed the lowest approval rating in U.S. history... not a hard act to follow. As governor Palin vetoed unnecessary capital projects, increased the operating budget to repair the damage done by the Murkowski administration, and delivered a "fair share" tax increase on oil production. She accomplished these feats in only two years, with a Republican-controlled state house and a bipartisan state Senate under Republican leadership. While she holds many traditional conservative social values, she hasn't attempted to manipulate public policy to reflect those beliefs. Right-wing conservatives repeatedly refer to Palin as a socialist, but I suspect most Alaskans consider her a conservative moderate with an independent streak. I am disappointed that Governor Palin has now assumed the role of partisan "pit bull" (her characterization, not mine), in an apparent effort to win the election with cheap sound bites rather than substance. But I sincerely doubt that she's calling the shots.
Is there any truth to the notion put forth by Palin (and the McCain campaign team) that the recently-released "Troopergate" report was in any way politically motivated, or do Alaskans see it as a fair and impartial report on her activities?
While Governor Palin worked effectively with the Alaska legislature, there is considerable tension between the Governor and the Alaska Senate bipartisan leadership. A member of that coalition was the chair of the committee initiating the investigation. In an election year the investigation certainly could have been politically motivated, but who can really judge motives? The committee initiated the investigation well before there was any talk of a vice president short-list and no one has challenged the stellar reputation of the retired criminal prosecutor chosen to conduct the investigation. So we are only left with one interesting conclusion: the report must be "fair and impartial," because both sides of the debate are claiming victory. By the way, if you haven't kept up with the terminology, Governor Palin recently dumped "Troopergate" and renamed the investigation "Tasergate" -- in honor of her former brother-in-law's electrifying personality, no doubt.
If John McCain hadn't picked Sarah Palin as his Veep choice, do you think Barack Obama would have had a chance of taking the state this year? And do you ever think Obama's going to make good on his promise to visit Alaska?
Yes, Obama had an excellent chance of taking Alaska. As I recall, just before McCain's Vice President announcement, polls showed Obama neck-and-neck with McCain. I think it was a tactical error on Obama's part to assume Alaska was lost simply because our popular governor was selected as McCain's running mate. I know many Republicans and non-partisan Alaskans who will be voting for Obama -- and a whole bunch more who are on the fence. Visiting Alaska would be a bold move for Obama.
What do you think Sarah Palin will do if she loses the election? What do you think her next step politically will be, and do you think she would ever run for President in the future?
If Governor Palin loses this election, one would assume she will return to Alaska and complete her first term of office. She stepped off the Alaska stage with a lot of unfinished business, and her national exposure could very well be helpful in resolving issues of mutual concern, such as our domestic supply of natural gas. Will she run for President in the future? I imagine even Governor Palin's closest friends could not hazard such a guess, as the Sarah Palin we see on the national stage is a very different Sarah Palin than we experienced as governor of our state.
From your book, it sounds as if you put a lot on the line to become a Confidential Source for the F.B.I., including what reads like the destruction of your career. Have the increasing number of convictions and guilty pleas rehabilitated your career in the eyes of potential clients in Alaska in any way, or have you moved on to other things in your professional life by now?
Funny you should ask. I received a hand-written note from a well respected Alaska Senator recently who read my book and commented:
"Frank, I applaud your courage and the tough decisions you had to make. I'm just reading Korda's biography called 'Ike.' There was a leader with solid ethics, maybe a little boring to some, but he knew who he was, what he believed in, could readily deal with prima donnas and their egos, and made a tremendous difference. Thanks for your important contribution to Alaska, and for never mentioning my name." [emphasis added by Prewitt]
I wish I had a hundred bucks for every politician and lobbyist who thanked me for not mentioning them in my book. I knew I would be a bit too radioactive, for a time, to work in and around government, so I am currently exploring my options (that's code for "my wife is keeping me real busy and I could sure use a job").
You said earlier that all this would make a "good documentary." If, instead, the story of the whole VECO corruption fiasco is ever made by Hollywood into a major motion picture, who would you want to play your character?
Well, my first thought was Jack Nicholson, because of his extraordinary talent for blending drama, humor and wild-eyed spontaneity into his characters. He'd make a great covert source, but, sorry Jack, you're probably a little too mature for the part. I think I'd have to go with Nicholas Cage, who has similar qualities and I can picture him sneak'n around wired for sound.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com