By J. Taylor Rushing - 08/10/10 06:53 PM EDT
Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a World War II veteran who became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history before his 2009 retirement amid corruption charges, has died in a plane crash. He was 86 years old.
Stevens, who served in the Senate from 1968 to Jan. 3 of last year, was one of nine people aboard an aircraft that crashed approximately 20 miles north of Dillingham, Alaska, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The crash occurred sometime before 7 p.m., when an airplane passing overhead first reported the wreckage. Rescue and reporting teams from the NTSB and Alaska National Guard took hours to reach the scene because of poor weather conditions.
The plane was owned by GCI, an Anchorage-based telecommunications company. Stevens was reportedly traveling to a lodge near Lake Aleknagik that is owned by the company.
From 2003 to 2007, Stevens was third in line to the presidency as president pro tempore of the Senate. He eclipsed former Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) as the GOP’s longest-serving member in July 2008, even as he was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven counts of failing to report gifts from an Alaskan oil-services company.
Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed the charges against Stevens in April 2009 after prosecutors were determined to have withheld evidence from the senator’s attorneys. But the legal victory came too late for Stevens, who had already lost his reelection bid to Democrat Mark Begich in November 2008 by fewer than 4,000 votes.
Stevens had already survived prostate cancer and a first plane crash, in 1978. That accident killed five other people, including Stevens’s first wife, Ann Cherrington.
Born in Indianapolis, Stevens’s family moved to Chicago before his parents divorced. He later lived in California with his cousin’s mother before graduating from high school and joining the military. He served in the Far East as an Air Force pilot from 1944 to 1946, and was decorated for his service with a Distinguished Flying Cross medal.
After leaving the service, Stevens earned a bachelor’s degree at UCLA and a law degree from Harvard, which he financed by working odd jobs — including a stint as a Boston bartender. He later worked as a volunteer on the presidential campaign of Dwight Eisenhower.
Stevens moved to Alaska in 1953 with Cherrington and in 1954 was nominated by Eisenhower as a U.S. attorney in Fairbanks, Alaska. He gained a rapid reputation as a vigorous prosecutor of vice laws, and in 1956 was rewarded with a job in Eisenhower’s Interior Department.
Stevens successfully lobbied Eisenhower to grant statehood to Alaska in 1959, and nine years later lost a Republican primary bid for the Senate. He was appointed to the Senate in December 1968 after the death of Sen. Bob Bartlett (D) and won his first full term in 1972.
Stevens’s 40-year congressional career included stints as the GOP whip and chairman of the Rules Committee, Appropriations Committee, Commerce Committee, Governmental Affairs Committee and Ethics Committee. He ran for majority leader in 1984 but lost to Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
At the apex of his career, Stevens was considered one of the most powerful politicians on Capitol Hill and was known for his fierce devotion to securing federal funds for Alaska. He relished the adversarial nature of Congress and was known to sport his Incredible Hulk tie amid tough legislative battles.
Stevens’s political positions were conservative, with notable exceptions including a pro-abortion rights stance, support for some stem cell research and advocacy for climate-change legislation.
Stevens’s pursuit of funds for his state landed him in trouble more than once, most notably in 2005 when he secured $400 million for a bridge to connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with the remote Gravina Island, where only about 50 residents lived. Mockingly described as a “bridge to nowhere,” the funds for the project were eventually stripped, although Stevens had once threatened to resign if that happened.
The FBI raided Stevens’s home in 2007 to search for information on a remodeling job that doubled the size of the residence. Investigators learned that the remodeling project had been organized by Bill Allen, the founder and CEO of the oil-production services company Veco.
Stevens was indicted in July 2008 for allegedly failing to report gifts from Veco on Senate disclosure forms. He was found guilty on all seven felony counts that October.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was one of several senators from both parties to call for Stevens’s resignation after the conviction was announced; Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) even scheduled an expulsion vote. But Stevens maintained his innocence and continued his reelection bid, calling his case “probably the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct that is known” during a debate with Begich in 2008.
Holder filed a motion to dismiss the charges in April 2009, two months after an FBI agent filed a whistleblower affidavit on Stevens’s behalf. Judge Emmet Sullivan granted the motion, calling the misconduct “shocking and disturbing.”