Will indictment jeopardize Alaska's future?

Posted: Friday, August 01, 2008

It's a cornerstone of our legal system: a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. An indictment is not a conviction. There is a judicial process to be followed.

Still, the news that a federal grand jury on Tuesday morning had handed down a seven-count felony indictment against Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, is a blow to all Alaskans. It is softened only by the senator's many years of public service, his hard work for the state he loves.

Sen. Stevens has declared his innocence. He plans to continue his campaign for the seat he has held for 40 years, since his appointment to it in 1968 by then-Gov. Walter Hickel on the death of Sen. E.L. Bartlett. (He was first elected to the Senate in a special election in 1970 to complete Bartlett's term and he has won every election since by huge margins.)

But the indictment means he has had to relinquish his vice chairmanship of Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and ranking positions on the Subcommittee on Defense (Committee on Appropriations) and Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery (Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs).

What the indictment means to Stevens, his family and Alaska is still anyone's guess. Is it the end of an illustrious career for the 84-year-old senator or a blip that comes at an inopportune time with the primary election right around the corner?

The indictment certainly doesn't fit with how most Alaskans know Stevens: a war hero, a champion for Alaska, powerful defender of the state, Alaskan of the Century, the man who has done more to shape Alaska than anyone else. He's left his mark on every community in the state, including those in the central Kenai Peninsula area. It's the same all over the state.

Would a man who has devoted his life to making Alaska a better place to live jeopardize his legacy by failing to disclose more than $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts received from VECO Corp. and its top executives? Alaskans can only speculate.

Whatever the outcome of the indictment, it doesn't change all that Stevens has done for Alaska and Alaskans.

It does, however, serve as cautionary tale to all those who would serve in public office: Elected officials are held to a high standard. There are rules to follow. No matter how powerful one is, he or she is not above the law.

The indictment also serves as a cautionary tale to the electorate. Stevens' power has served Alaska well, but at what cost?

Stevens has been looked at as "the third part" of the state's economy; losing his influence is expected to mean a significant loss of federal dollars to Alaska.

How did Alaskans let one man become so powerful that the state's economy depends, at least in perception, on his being in office?

As Alaskans reflect on Sen. Stevens' long career and many accomplishments in light of the indictment, they need to ask themselves this question: Is our own greed as a state going to be our undoing?

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