Ted Stevens, Alaska's Senate Champion for 40 Years, Dies at 86

Ted Stevens, the U.S. senator who secured Alaska a large slice of the federal pie throughout a 40- year career cut short by a conviction, later overturned, for violating government ethics laws, has died in the crash of a small plane in his home state. He was 86.

Stevens was among nine people aboard a plane that crashed last night in Alaska. The U.S. Coast Guard said four survived.

Stevens survived a 1978 plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed five people, including his wife, Ann.

In his four decades in the Senate, Stevens never tried to smooth out his reputation for bare-knuckle politics. When preparing for a day of political combat, he would wear an Incredible Hulk necktie. He used the power that came with seniority to fight for Alaska interests.

“Ted Stevens and I agreed on issues about once a century,” said Democratic Representative Dave Obey of Wisconsin. “But I always enjoyed and appreciated working with him because you always knew exactly where he stood.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “In the history of our country, no one man has done more for one state than Ted Stevens.” President Barack Obama said Stevens “devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska and fighting for our men and women in uniform.”

Felony Charges

A federal jury convicted Stevens on Oct. 27, 2008, of seven felony charges of failing to report more than $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts from Veco Corp., an Alaska oil- services company, Bill Allen, the company’s founder, and other friends. Allen, who had admitted to bribery and conspiracy charges, said he sometimes sought help from Stevens on matters important to Veco.

The verdict came two weeks before Election Day as Stevens, first appointed in 1968, was seeking his seventh full term. He insisted he was innocent, continued his campaign and almost pulled off a victory, losing to Democrat Mark Begich by about 4,000 votes out of 300,000 total.

Stevens blamed misconduct by the federal prosecutors for his conviction. Attorney General Eric Holder, shortly after taking office in 2009 as part of President Barack Obama’s administration, also concluded that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that may have helped the defense.

Specifically, Holder said prosecutors should have shared notes of an interview with Allen in which he made statements that conflicted with other evidence suggesting the renovations made to Stevens’s house in Girdwood, Alaska, cost more than twice what Allen had estimated.

Conviction Overturned

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan set aside the Stevens conviction, and Holder ordered training for Justice Department attorneys on requirements to share evidence with defendants.

“Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system, was unwavering,” Stevens told Sullivan as his conviction was set aside. “But what some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed.”

Stevens’s 40 years, 10 days in office made him among the longest-serving senators in history. Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who set the record with more than 51 years in the Senate, died in June.

During his long congressional career, Stevens served as Senate Republican whip, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Commerce Committee. Before joining the Senate in 1968 he worked in Washington for the Interior Department in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower.

Hostile to Washington

That didn’t mean he was fond of the nation’s capital.

“God forbid that anyone will ever tell me that the city of Washington is my home,” he said in 1982. “It is not. I detest it. I really do. I cannot think of another place to have a nation’s capital in the world that is a worse place to live.”

He boasted about his record of sending billions of federal dollars to Alaska, which he said helped change it from an “impoverished territory” into a modern state.

“My motto has been here: To hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska,” he told the Senate in a farewell address in November 2008.

He helped write the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave $962 million to Alaska Natives in return for their ceding of all aboriginal land rights. In 1973 he helped secure approval for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Oil Productions

More recently, he tried and failed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production. After the Senate rejected the proposal in December 2005, Stevens lashed out on the Senate floor: “I’m going to go to every one of your states, and I’m going to tell them what you’ve done.”

Stevens used his seat on the Appropriations Committee to send billions in federal dollars to Alaska for projects such as running water for Eskimo villages and revamping the Anchorage airport, which is named in his honor. Between 1995 and 2008, Stevens secured $3.4 billion in federal funds for projects in Alaska, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group.

Stevens faced criticism for some projects that were seen as wasteful, such as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $398 million structure to an island with 50 full-time residents that was eventually canceled.

In a statement today, Stevens’s family called him “a guiding light through statehood and the development of the 49th state” and “a fierce advocate” of the legislative branch’s power over federal spending.

Born in Indianapolis

Theodore Fulton Stevens was born on Nov. 18, 1923, in Indianapolis, the third of four children. The family moved to Chicago, where Stevens’s father worked as an accountant. The children returned to Indianapolis with their father after he lost his job at the start of the Great Depression and he and his wife divorced.

As a teenager, Stevens moved in with an aunt in Manhattan Beach, California, after his father died.

After one semester at Oregon State University, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a transport pilot with the so-called Flying Tigers in China during World War II.

He earned a degree in political science from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1947 and a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1950. In 1953 he was appointed U.S. attorney in Fairbanks.

After working in Washington at the Interior Department, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1962, then won election to Alaska’s State House in 1964. After another unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1968, he was appointed by Alaska Governor Walter Hickel to succeed Senator E.L. Bartlett, who had died. He won election to fill out Bartlett’s term in 1970, then won his first full six-year term in 1972.

Stevens had five children with his first wife, Ann, who died in the 1978 plane crash that he survived. In 1980 he married his second wife, Catherine, and they had a daughter together.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

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