Poor Ted Stevens

Justice screwed up, but that doesn’t change what he did

The public reaction to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision last week to dismiss the indictment of former Senator Ted Stevens has been a little surprising. Instead of an outpouring of anger or frustration at Stevens getting off the hook, there has been much opining that his prosecution was a persecution.

“Whatever your politics, hard not to feel for Ted Stevens,” ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos suggested via Twitter.

“Here’s a guy who gave sixty years of service to this country, and he was screwed [by prosecutors],” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a long-time friend of Stevens’s in the Senate. “How does he get his reputation back?”

The decision “shows clearly that [Holder] is committed to the rule of law, regardless of politics,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat.

Chris Matthews erroneously told viewers “the charges should never have been brought, there should never have been a prosecution”—a flub caught by Talking Points Memo.

The Beltway publication The Hill published a round-up of various quotes from lawmakers, titled “Sen. Stevens ‘got screwed’ by Justice.”

In Alaska, Governor Sarah Palin requested that Senator Mark Begich—who had narrowly won Stevens’s seat a week after Stevens was found guilty by a D.C. jury of lying on Senate financial disclosure forms—resign and a special election be held.

What was surprising about all this was not so much that people from both sides of the partisan divide thought Holder did the right thing—the prosecution’s misdeeds were indeed lengthy, and the chances of the conviction being upheld on appeal slim—but rather that this praise for Holder and a desire to see the Justice Department held to account wasn’t balanced by an acknowledgement that the case against the eighty-five-year-old Stevens was unassailable.

Nothing Justice did or didn’t do changes the fact that Stevens failed to report $250,000 in home renovations and gifts on his Senate disclosure forms. There were the audio tapes of Stevens discussing his misdeeds and the cover-up with his old buddy and co-conspirator Bill Allen, then owner of VECO, an oil pipeline company that has surely benefited by Allen’s connections to the powerful politician.

Stevens’s defense? Ignorance. He and his wife, Catherine, simply forgot to follow up about that small matter of the bill for all that work, Stevens testified. That massage chair that cost a couple grand and was in his home for over eight years? That was a “loan” Stevens said. The Viking gas grill? He had never used it, because it was “dangerous.” With more than thirty-five years in the Senate and as a former prosecutor himself, Stevens was plenty familiar with the disclosure standards of federal office.

Perhaps more important, though they only garnered national attention last summer, the case against Stevens is part of a long-running, messy investigation into the shady dealings of Alaska’s political class. In the last two years, five Alaska state legislators have been indicted or convicted on bribery and corruption charges related to quid pro quo dealings with VECO. Stevens, his son Ben, and the state’s lone representative, Don Young, have long been the focus of FBI attention.

Last year Alaska received the most of any state in federal earmarks per capita. Many of those earmarks were secured by Stevens, who, as his trial revealed, was in the midst of a number of shady dealings with people with stakes in the oil industry. The huge amount of national taxpayer money sent to Alaska each year makes Stevens dirty politics not just the concern of citizens of Alaska, but the American people—the true victims of the prosecution’s bungled case. Maybe if the media spent a little bit more time becoming familiar with the man Alaskans call “Uncle Ted” they might see that the prosecution did indeed “screw” someone—but it wasn’t Stevens.

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Kate Klonick is a journalist in New York City. She has written for ABCNews.com, Esquire, The Guardian, The Washington Independent and Talking Points Memo.