Prosecutors walk after Stevens case, and that's a threat to all of us
The Sen. Ted Stevens legal case is Alaska’s Frankenstein. It is a body made from a stockpile of parts that requires a shock to bring it to life over and over, in movie after movie. And just like in the theater, when everyone thinks it has finally died its theatrical death, back to life it comes to bedevil us again.
If there is a single statement that can sum up the Stevens case, it was made forcefully by Edward Bennett Williams, the founder of the law firm which defended him: “Every year in Washington they have a witch hunt. The key is not (to) be this year’s witch.” And regardless of how any Alaskan feels about Ted Stevens, the simple fact of the matter is, as recounted by Bob Cary in his book “Not Guilty," Ted and Catherine Stevens paid $160,000 for renovations that were assessed at $104,800.
But this column is not to bring the Girdwood renovation case back to life. It, like the life and career of Stevens, is old news. What is troubling is the new news. The prosecutors who fumbled or bumbled or lied or corrupted the case – choose your own verb – are climbing out of the cesspool they created smelling like roses. This is a very frightening matter for all Alaskans. What we've discovered is we have a legal system that doesn’t seem to care about facts, only outcomes.
Like most Alaskans, I feel like I knew the late senator. We certainly had our disagreements. The main one was about coffee. When he was a guest in my hotel in Cordova, the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, I would always try to buy him a cup of coffee. Inevitably he would throw a hissy fit and snarl, “You cannot buy a U.S. senator.” Sometimes it was gently, other times it was in a more forceful manner. It wasn’t lost on me; this is an honest person – and a far cry from what I saw published in the press week after week for seven years.
It's easy to downplay the impact of Stevens today. That’s because we – and America – were substantially different in 1968 when he took office. Half of the American population was yet to be born. There was no trans-Alaska pipeline, we were mired in an ongoing war in Vietnam that was costing us billions of dollars and about 1,000 young men a month – this was in the days of the involuntary draft for every male 18 years or older. There was no Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, no Native regional corporations, no Permanent Fund dividend and the largest employer in the state was the fishing industry. Most of those workers came from Outside.
This was the Alaska to which Stevens devoted his life and you can see his fingerprints in every community from Barrow to Ketchikan. Sure he made mistakes, all of us do. But we are a much better, richer, more modern state because of Stevens not in spite of him.
What happened to Stevens was, to quote Williams, “a witch hunt.” At this point it does not really make any difference who lit the fire to burn Ted Stevens at the stake. But what is important is making sure it never happens again. Recently the U.S. government found “procedural errors” and cleared the federal prosecutors who botched Stevens' trial. They are walking away with a clean slate after ruining the career of a U.S. senator.
What's happened in Washington, D. C., should be very troubling to Alaskans. First, if the U.S. Department of Justice can generate a witch hunt against a senator, it can do it against anyone. Stevens could fight the charges brought against him. He had an excellent legal defense team. The rest of us? Not so much. We will not have such a team, if DOJ determines it is our turn to be burned at the stake.
Second, the federal government – and in this case DOJ – is clearly a law unto itself. It can do what it wants to do, and if you don’t like it, you can take a long walk off a short pier. Even more frightening, it means that crime is what DOJ says it is, not the transgressions that are reported by the public. In 2008, and after hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their homes to out-and-out illegal activities of banks, not a single banker has gone to jail for a single subprime loan.
Third, and most troubling, is that the federal government can break its own rules and get away with it. Stevens had the best legal defense team in the country and DOJ jiggled the legal system to take him out. And when the jiggling was discovered, the same government just shrugs its collective shoulders as if to say, “Well, you know, mistakes were made and we cannot go back and relive history, so we are all just going to have to live with them and move forward.”
My advice to the DOJ is to be careful of the transgressions you wink away because they will come back to haunt you.
My advice to Alaskans is to carefully read the U.S. Constitution. You only have the rights you are willing to fight for and if there is any one lesson in the Steven case, it is that the U.S. government feels that the only rights you have are the ones DOJ is willing to allow you. And if they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar when you get convicted and sentenced for a federal crime you did not commit, expect to hear them say “Well, mistakes were made and so we're just going to have to live with them and move forward.”
DOJ cost Alaska our U.S. senator. Outrageous.
Margy Johnson is vice president of Alaska Dispatch News, a former mayor of Cordova and the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce 2013 Alaskan of the Year.