FBI files offer glimpse of Alaska's long-time Sen. Ted Stevens

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 14, 2011 

The FBI released thousands of pages of its files Friday on U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, some six months after his death in a plane crash in Alaska.

But anyone hoping for new insights into the Justice Department's corruption investigation that netted Stevens and almost a dozen other Alaska political and business figures will be disappointed.

While most of the released material is about the investigation, it consists of the FBI's obsessively comprehensive clipping files from newspapers, magazines and websites. The 2,751 pages of articles are all old news, previously published. The subjects of the news stories might show the sweep of the FBI's interests in Alaska's politics -- the Anchorage Daily News political gossip column, the Alaska Ear, is well represented in the pile, along with investigative stories and trial coverage -- but there's nothing to show where agents actually followed up.

On the other hand, the remaining 654 pages from the files document decades of interactions between Stevens and the bureau -- its response to threats against Stevens, his request for assistance at detecting possible bugs in his Washington office, the long memory of bureau headquarters to a slight by Stevens in the 1950s.

Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history, died in a plane crash in August, at age 86. The documents were released in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. The release of such information is common after the death of prominent individuals, and the FBI has a number of such files on its website, including those of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

In Stevens' case, there was little chance that any of the criminal investigation files that led to his corruption indictment and trial in 2008 would be released. The broad investigation is still ongoing, with a trial of a former state legislator scheduled for May. After Stevens was convicted, his charges were thrown out over prosecutorial misconduct, and two investigations into the botched prosecution are still unresolved.

The files include letters from people suggesting the FBI investigate alleged improprieties connected to Stevens.

Among those the FBI looked into were allegations in 1991 that an employee of the defunct airline MarkAir, owned by Stevens supporter Neil Bergt, was pressured into contributing $100 to the Stevens re-election campaign, and was told she would be reimbursed by the company for her trouble.

The file also includes an allegation by an informant who told federal authorities in 1988 that Stevens paid $350 for an eighth of an ounce of cocaine.

Other people wrote to the FBI, enclosing newspaper articles about Stevens' business associations and suggesting the agency look into them. They included the 2003 allegations of a project involving asbestos removal and a land donation that would require Stevens' backing, and that the business owner was advised he should hire Stevens' brother-in-law as a lobbyist.

Stevens also made tips. He forwarded information from people suggesting investigations of marijuana growers, gambling operations and other crimes.

The file pulls back the curtain on another era in Alaska, when Stevens was a young federal prosecutor in Fairbanks.

A criticism of the FBI by Stevens in 1954 for not investigating the jail escape of a prisoner in Fairbanks was recorded in the bureau's Washington files and recalled at least three times by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other officials. Stevens didn't appear on Hoover's infamous "enemies list," but he wasn't a pal either.

In 1969, shortly after he was appointed to fill the late Sen. Bob Bartlett's seat, Stevens asked Hoover to support the idea of a single nationwide phone number for emergency services -- 911. At the time, every police department had its own number, often scrawled on the household refrigerator or taped above the family phone.

Hoover wrote Stevens he had no objections but wouldn't allow the FBI to be brought into the system -- a situation that remains to this day. In the copy of his letter preserved in the FBI files, Hoover added a note about Stevens' escaped prisoner critique 15 years earlier, in which he said Stevens "spoke out of turn."

"As a result, Anchorage office was instructed to be discreet and circumspect in dealing with him," Hoover said.

In a 1971 memo to Hoover lieutenant and confidant John Mohr -- a keeper of Hoover's secret political files -- FBI official J.J. Casper reported that Stevens arrived late to an FBI academy graduation, getting there just as the Marine band was playing "Ruffles and Flourishes" for the arrival of President Nixon. Stevens was there to see the Sitka police chief graduate, but he was forced by the Secret Service to remain in the lobby. Stevens blamed the FBI for not telling him the event would start on time, Casper said, then walked out.

In closing his memo, Casper noted the old file reference to the 1954 prisoner escape, and also reported that "bureau files further indicate he is a 'drinker.' "

In February 1972, Stevens went to bat for a constituent in Fairbanks being investigated for bribery by the FBI. The constituent worked as a civilian at Fort Wainwright, and was accused by a whistleblower of trading an acre of land to a supervisor in return for a promotion. The man wanted the identity of the whistleblower, and Stevens forwarded the request to Hoover.

Hoover's reply denied the request. Once again, in a note for the file copy, he recalled the escape incident. "Our contacts with Stevens since becoming a U.S. Senator have been very limited and he is not on the special correspondence list," the note said.

It wasn't till L. Patrick Gray took over the FBI in May 1972 that the reference to Stevens' critique over the prisoner escape appeared to be forgotten.

The files show that the FBI took threats against Stevens seriously, analyzing anonymous letters for fingerprints, watermarks and distinguishing handwriting characteristics. Agents peeled the stamps off envelopes for traces of evidence. When subjects were identified, they were interviewed; some were crazy, some were angry and some apologized for over-reacting.

Among them: A 1974 call to the Federal Energy Administration office from someone complaining that he couldn't get unleaded gasoline in Tok while driving his new Cadillac El Dorado from Detroit to Anchorage. The caller threatened that if he "had a hold of Senator Stevens he would kill the whole bunch."

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