Anchorage, AK -- Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' indictment on seven counts of concealing income reminds me of Al Capone's eventual conviction for tax evasion. Stevens presided over a massive raid on the federal treasury for years, turning it into almost a Privy Purse for Alaska's developers, road builders, and other cronies. He and his colleague on the House side, Don Young, always made it clear that anyone who didn't give them what they thought Alaska needed would pay a heavy price in terms of funding for public projects in their own states. Young, it appears, even rewrote spending bills passed by Congress before sending them to the president.
But indictment of Stevens today had nothing to do this huge misappropriation of public funds. Instead, the Justice Department maintains that he received (and failed to report) gifts from Bill Allen, the head of Veco, an oil and construction company to which he had steered massive federal benefits. Stevens claims he's innocent. And his Republican colleagues in the Senate are, publicly at least, still full of praise for him. "He's been a fighter for his state, for his country," said Sen. Kit Bond, who serves on the Appropriations Committee with Stevens.
But the political commentators are having a field day -- the last thing that other Republican Senatorial candidates need is a spotlight on their overly cozy relationships with the oil industry during the same week that the major oil companies are announcing their unseemly record profits. At least one challenged Republican incumbent, Minnesota's Norm Coleman, also received campaign contributions from Veco. And North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole has announced that she'll donate to charity $10,000 in campaign cash that she received from Stevens (she's already spent another $11,000).
There is even speculation that the ethics scandal, which also reached into the office of former Governor Frank Murkowski and could still drag Rep. Young down as well, could make Alaska a competitive state in the Presidential election. It certainly won't help Stevens's own chances of re-election.
So that $400 million Bridge to Nowhere may yet turn out to be an important ingredient in a fundamental shift in the politics of Alaska -- and America.