When federal agents raided the home of Ted Stevens in an Alaska ski town last week, looking for evidence in a bribery probe, they weren't just investigating the most senior member of the U.S. Senate. They were also exposing a bullying, nepotistic political culture that has flourished on the Last Frontier for decades. Despite its vastness, Alaska is home to just 670,000 people, and it's been dominated for years by a handful of players: Stevens, 83, former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Don Young, the state's lone House member, and various protégés and oilmen. The federal investigation widened earlier this year when an oil-company executive pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers, and has now snared Stevens, Young and other lawmakers who have—until now—wheeled and dealed without consequence.
Stevens and Young, whose connections with the same oilman are under investigation, have long been regarded as outrageous figures in Washington. Along with former senator (and governor) Frank Murkowski, they were relent-less in their pursuit of pork-barrel dollars. Gruff, at times rude, Stevens was sardonically called "Uncle Ted" as federal spending to his home state doubled during his stint as Appropriations Committee chairman, which ended in 2004. Young, who denies any wrongdoing, made his reputation as a fierce anti-environmentalist: he once waved a walrus penis bone at an Interior Department official who dared defy him on expanding the Marine Mammal Protection Act. More recently, Young suggested that "ecoterrorists" were behind the 9/11 attacks. Together, Stevens and Young came up with $223 million to link the town of Ketchikan to an island with only 50 residents, a singular act of pork slinging that became known as the "Bridge to Nowhere." (Young took the criticism as a badge of honor, saying he aspired to be a "little oinker" like his mentor.)
In Alaska, however, Stevens and Young are widely seen as saviors. When Stevens came to the Senate in 1968, Alaska was a backwater populated, in part, by social dropouts living Jack London fantasies. Stevens helped modernize the state, bringing electricity, health care and even subsidized air service to the state's rural inhabitants, who revere him. Essential to this transformation was the discovery of vast oil reserves. Oil taxes generate nearly 90 percent of the state's revenue. (There's no state income tax.) An oil-wealth savings account, the Alaska Permanent Fund, is worth $40 billion, and this year will generate a dividend of about $1,575 to every man, woman and child in the state.
Stevens was always close to the oil industry, perhaps too close. He befriended Bill Allen, former CEO of the billion-dollar oil-services company VECO; the two men even co-owned a racehorse. VECO generously supported the campaigns of friendly lawmakers, including Stevens and Young—and made life tough for those who balked. On one exchange recorded by the Feds, Allen can be heard telling a state lawmaker, "I own your ass." Allen allegedly supervised renovations to Stevens's home in Girdwood, outside Anchorage. The Anchorage Daily News reported that contractors said they submitted bills for the renovation project first to Allen; Stevens says he paid them himself. Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribery, has also told investigators that he paid phony consulting fees to Stevens's son, Ben, a former president of the state Senate—a claim the younger Stevens denies. At least two other inquiries are looking into whether Ted Stevens earmarked federal funds for land deals benefiting friends and associates. The senator has denied wrongdoing in all three inquiries and has pledged to cooperate with investigators.
The scandal has Alaskans—who long ago turned a blind eye to their leaders' excesses—wondering if an era of big-talking, pork-slinging pols has come to an end. The oil culture is changing: though prices are at a record high, production is dropping. Even a whiff of wrongdoing is now enough to provoke scrutiny. Alaskans recently elected Gov. Sarah Palin, a young reformer with a squeaky-clean reputation. At 43, she speaks for a new generation of Alaskans who were baffled when Uncle Ted referred to the Internet as a "series of tubes." Still, it was Stevens who helped bring Alaska into the modern age, and courted his constituents over the years with wedding gifts, letters of recommendation—and sometimes just a friendly pat on the back and a fishing tale. Now they are left to ponder a future not only without the gushing pump, but without the man who primed it.