An intriguing e-mail exchange between U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and Port of Anchorage director Bill Sheffield caused an instant flap Monday, with Mayor Mark Begich directing it be investigated as a possible violation of the city's new ethics code.In the e-mail chain, 16 months old but just being publicized, Alaska's senior senator and former governor chat about Christmas, sharing drinks and a campaign fundraiser for Stevens to be hosted by Sheffield.
Sheffield was using his city e-mail account when he offered to "hold a FR at my house." He said Monday that could have stood for "a footrace or a fun rally or whatever" but acknowledged they were talking about a fundraiser.
"It was probably a mistake," Sheffield said by cell phone from Juneau, where he is trying to secure state funding for a proposed $700 million port expansion. He said he has hosted fundraisers for Stevens for years, starting long before he became port director.
Stevens said in a statement that he is careful not to use public resources in campaigning. He was using a BlackBerry with e-mail paid for by his campaign, as he has for years, according to campaign spokesman Tim McKeever. The address at issue - no longer active - was firstname.lastname@example.org.
"There was no misuse of federal resources in this situation," Stevens said in a statement.
The six e-mails in the string were among nearly 1,000 pages of documents obtained in November 2007 by the Alaska Public Interest Research Group through a public records request to the port.
The documents included hundreds of other e-mails but those in the string from November 2006 were the only ones about political campaigning, said AkPIRG executive director Steve Cleary. He publicized the chain Monday as he sent in a new request for any e-mails between Sheffield and the congressional delegation, staff members, legislators or candidates that relate in any way to election campaign activity, including fundraising.
The public interest group sought the port expansion records because of concerns about the size and cost of the project.
It was surprising that the e-mails on fundraising and Christmas were included given that Stevens and Sheffield didn't even discuss the port, Cleary said. The original request sought, among other things, communications with members of Congress or their staffs on the port.
"AkPIRG believes that public officials whether elected or appointed shouldn't be using public time or public resources to engage in election campaign activity," Cleary said. "You are supposed to be doing your job, not engaging in ... political activity of any kind."
The e-mails at issue were sent just a few months after the federal investigation into Alaska political corruption burst into public view. Offices of six legislators, including Stevens' son, then-Senate President Ben Stevens, were searched by the FBI in August 2006. But Ted Stevens would not be caught in the glare until July 2007, when the FBI searched his Girdwood home.
Neither Stevens has been charged with a crime, and the investigation is ongoing. So far, three former legislators, a lobbyist, a top aide to former Gov. Frank Murkowski, and two former executives of the defunct oil field services company Veco have been convicted of various corruption charges. A fourth former lawmaker is awaiting trial.
On Nov. 16, 2006, Ted Stevens wrote to Sheffield about the upcoming campaign.
"It's going to be a long, hard trail, probably the toughest one I've faced, but there are still issues here that I do believe I can deal with better than the next person," Stevens e-mailed. "We'll be home for Christmas-hope you and I can talk about some of these problems over a glass."
The next evening, Sheffield e-mailed back and invited Stevens over for dinner or a drink on Christmas Day.
"Other wise see you in Girdwood at your convenience. You may want a FR this year. Let me know."
A delighted Stevens wrote back right away.
"Bill: you're on! Will do it and I will welcome an FR at your place. It feels good to start to gear up for the race! Thanks.T."
The conversation next picks up on Nov. 28. Sheffield says people will start coming at 3 p.m. on Christmas with dinner at 4.
Also: "Received your letter regarding request for early money. Will gather up a few checks and hold a FR at my house as well," Sheffield wrote.
In his reply, Stevens said they'd come early because of a planned dinner "with all the gang" including "Ellie," whom he called the grand dame of "our total family." He was referring to Elladean Bittner, mother of his wife, Catherine, said McKeever.
"This will be a tough election if the war isn't over abd (typo) that doesn't look too good now!" Stevens wrote.
On Monday, Cleary sent the exchange to Begich, the city attorney and news reporters. He referenced the city code prohibiting municipal employees from campaigning while on duty.
Begich then referred the matter to deputy municipal attorney Rhonda Westover - the city's senior ethics officer - for investigation. She'll decide whether it needs to go to the Ethics Board, which makes recommendations.
Begich, like Sheffield, is a Democrat. He is seriously considering running against Stevens.
So far, the port expansion project has received $109 million in federal earmarks.
Sheffield said his support for Stevens had nothing to do with money for the port. McKeever said the same thing, on behalf of Stevens.
As to the fundraiser, McKeever said it didn't happen until August 2007.