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October 4, 2006

Bush likely approved FBI probe of Alaska lawmakers

Posted by David Postman at 9:59 AM

The Seattle Times has a story this morning about how the federal investigation of Alaska lawmakers has turned from oil to fish.

And in doing so, the investigation bumps up closer to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, one of the most powerful Republicans in D.C. Any federal investigation of state lawmakers can be politically sensitive. But the Alaska investigation already involved Stevens' son, state Senate President Ben Stevens, as well as the oil field service company the younger Stevens works for.

The Alaska investigation appears to have been so sensitive that the feds moved to make a key law enforcement appointment in the state by carefully avoiding Stevens' customary role in providing advice and consent — and angering the senator in the process.

A former Republican U.S. attorney in Alaska tells me he's certain the raids didn't happen until after President Bush himself was briefed and gave his OK.

As the Anchorage Daily News first reported the FBI took papers from the office of Ben Stevens, including "a copy of a sworn statement that implicated (Ben) Stevens in an alleged payment scheme involving fisheries legislation brought by his father." The FBI also took "unknown" documents of Ted Stevens', according to a letter from Ben Stevens to the Daily News.

Ted Stevens sent The Seattle Times an e-mail in response to questions about the investigation, according to Hal Bernton's story:

I understand the public's interest in the investigation. It has always been my practice to not comment on such matters to avoid even the appearance that I might influence the investigation. That is especially important in this case where records have been obtained from a number of legislators, including my son Ben.

The federal government also seemed concerned about any appearance that Stevens could influence the investigation. A new U.S. Attorney was appointed for Alaska on Aug. 22. And it wasn't who Stevens wanted for the job. The Daily News reported:

Stevens has been trying to get an Alaska lawyer appointed U.S. attorney here, but for one reason or another the people he recommended have been knocked out, a spokesman for the senator said Wednesday.

The Stevens aide told the paper the senator was "furious at the way the attorney general handled this." The offices of the younger Stevens and other Alaska lawmakers were raided nine days after the appointment was made.

Wev Shea, a U.S. attorney in Alaska from 1990-93 and a prominent Republican in the state, told me:

"They wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It doesn't mean Ted did anything wrong at all. That'd just be the sensible thing to do."

And to be extra sensible, the investigation is being run out of Washington, D.C., not the Alaska U.S. Attorney's office.

"The whole office is recused," Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said.

(ADD: The same Justice spokesman told Bernton that two U.S. assistant attorneys in the Alaska office are working the case.)

Shea knows FBI Director Robert Mueller and said he is confident that Mueller and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez "were extremely sensitive to getting the executive branch of the federal government involved in state legislative matters at all."

"Bob Mueller has an extremely fine understanding of politics and I'm not talking about politics in Alaska. ... He has been with major players in politics for years and he understands the political implications of something as sensitive as going into state legislators' offices, especially the sensitivity of going into a state legislator's office who happens to be the son of someone— should something happen to the president — is a few people away from becoming president of this country."

After the vice president and the speaker of the House, Stevens, as speaker pro tem of the Senate, is third in line to succeed the president.

Adding to those political sensitivities was the recognition that the Alaska investigations could slow progress on a proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline. That project is a priority for the Bush administration. As recently as two months before the FBI raids, Vice President Dick Cheney sent a letter to Alaska lawmakers urging them to approve a contract with North Slope oil companies, saying:

You have it in your hands to help ensure that the Alaska Gas Pipeline ultimately furnishes dependable, affordable, and environmentally sound energy for America's future.

The administration also said it would expedite permitting for the gas pipeline.

Bush's support for the pipeline convinces Shea that Bush personally approved the Alaska raids.

"I can guarantee you, virtually, that in the daily briefings that Bob (Mueller) has with the president that the president was briefed and gave his OK on this. It's not something I say lightly."

The investigation has, in fact, slowed work on the pipeline contract. Legislative leaders in Alaska wrote a letter to Gov. Frank Murkowski saying this was not the time to negotiate a contract with the oil companies:

Members believe a cooling off period is essential in order to distance the Legislature from this perception of corruption and gives us time to learn what the FBI is truly attempting to accomplish.

Given all those sensitivities and political collateral damage, Shea says the FBI raids would have happened only if the feds had something in the bag already.

"I think before they even started the raids that went on they had enough information to prosecute certain individuals or to go after certain entities. And I also feel quite strongly that there's a good chance that multiple phones were tapped long before this thing went down, that people were wired before this went down and there were probably multiple informants."

And if that's not enough to scare Alaska lawmakers, Shea has one more thing for them to worry about:

"I wonder if they ever got the idea that the FBI got permission to put bugs in their offices."

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