Commentary: Sen. Stevens abused office to benefit wife

The following editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on Oct. 22.

"Senate staff are compensated for the purpose of assisting Senators in their official legislative and representational duties, and not for the purpose of performing personal or other non-official activities for themselves or on behalf of others." — U.S. Senate ethics manual.

In Ted Stevens' trial on charges of failing to report years' worth of gifts from convicted lobbyist Bill Allen, his wife Catherine plays a critical role in his defense. She was in charge of the teepee, as Sen. Stevens put it. She handled all the bills. Sen. Stevens had no idea Bill Allen supplied home improvements they hadn't paid for.

Pointing the finger at his wife may help Sen. Stevens fight the charges in the trial, but evidence about his wife's conduct has created new ethical and legal problems for the senator.

Undisputed evidence shows that Sen. Stevens allowed his wife, a highly-paid Washington, D.C., lawyer, to use his government-paid Senate staff as a personal errand service.

Catherine Stevens used her husband's Senate staff to keep the family checkbook. She used the senator's staff to pay her credit card bills from luxury stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. Catherine Stevens had the senator's staff make runs to an ATM to fetch cash for her. The senator's staff wrapped Christmas gifts for the Stevens, walked the family dog, fed the family cat, cut the family lawn, paid personal parking tickets and handled overdue personal video rental bills.

Much of that help came from someone who reportedly cost U.S. taxpayers $126,000 a year, supposedly to perform official U.S. government business.

Using Senate staff as a household helper is a clear violation of Senate ethics rules, as stated in the Senate Ethics Manual.

If Sen. Stevens wins re-election, he will almost certainly face an inquiry by the Senate Ethics Committee. If he loses the election, the violation of Senate ethics rules is moot, but he could face new legal charges for misappropriation of federal funds.

Because whether or not the jury convicts Sen. Stevens of filing false reports about gifts, one thing is clear. In letting his wife use his Senate staff as a concierge service, he abused the privileges of his office.

Bottom line: There's trouble ahead for Ted Stevens, now that it's clear his wife repeatedly used Senate staff for personal business.