JUNEAU - Word that U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens had been indicted on federal charges added a shocking new twist to what has become a summer of distraction for state lawmakers meeting in special session here on the natural gas pipeline issue.On July 10, one of the Legislature's own, Anchorage Republican Sen. John Cowdery, was himself indicted as part of the same public corruption dragnet that ensnared Stevens.
On Monday, a legislative panel approved an investigation into whether Gov. Sarah Palin abused her powers by firing a public safety commissioner in connection with her sister's messy divorce from a state trooper.
State lawmakers also have been coping with a raft of ideas to help Alaskans with high energy costs, including a bill to dole out $1,200 to every resident, an idea that has divided many legislators.
All this has occurred as lawmakers returned to Juneau last month for one reason: to consider awarding a state license and $500 million to TransCanada Corp. as an incentive to build a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline.
It's one of the state's most coveted economic development dreams, a project so big it could help sustain the state's economy for decades.
The TransCanada deal is Palin's top priority, and she asked legislators today to not let the Stevens indictment derail the pipeline license, which by law dies if not approved by midnight Saturday.
"It's critical that lawmakers stay focused on this hundred-year question that's in front of them, and that is whether this gas line is going to be built," she told reporters in her office at midday.
Lawmakers gave assurances that the Stevens news, while disruptive, had not halted work in the Capitol.
A Senate committee continued holding hearings today on the gas line, while many House members toiled on the energy relief bills.
House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said the Stevens indictment was no surprise, as people have known for months about the federal investigation and the FBI raid on the senator's Girdwood home last year.
Indictments have become regular news around the Capitol. Aside from Cowdery, four other former legislators have been charged, convicted or sent to prison in the corruption probe.
"I don't know if getting used to it is the right word," Harris said. "It isn't earth-shattering anymore. It's not shocking. It's disappointing. It's frustrating."
That all the indictments have involved Republicans could be a problem for Republican legislative candidates in the coming elections, Harris said.
"It's certainly possible," he said, that Alaska voters could turn en masse against Republicans.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harry Crawford said if Stevens, who has been such a force politically and in bringing federal money to the state, is forced to leave the Senate, the changes could be profound.
"Ted Stevens has been the man for a long, long time," Crawford said. "I expect a seismic shift in Alaska politics."
Crawford, a member of the powerful House Finance Committee, said he stuck to his work Tuesday on the energy-relief legislation.
But during the morning, when federal prosecutors held a news conference to talk about the Stevens indictment, a hush fell over the bustling Capitol.
"I reckon pretty much everybody in the building was glued to a television set," said Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage. "It's not every day that your United States senator gets indicted