WASHINGTON -- Gov. Sarah Palin said Friday that she and Alaskans are owed a more thorough explanation from U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens about why he is under federal investigation.
"Right now, Alaskans aren't hearing anything," Palin said, adding that she and many of the state's residents are willing to give Stevens more leeway than most people because of the Republican senator's long service to Alaska.
"But not hearing anything in terms of information that can be shared regarding the senator's innocence is kind of frustrating for Alaskans," Palin said in a telephone interview from Anchorage. "Alaskans are getting more anxious to hear any information that he can provide regarding his innocence."
Palin first expressed her concerns Thursday to a reporter with National Public Radio, who spoke to her after she dropped in on the federal corruption trial of former state Rep. Pete Kott. Among the trial's bigger revelations was testimony from former Veco chairman Bill Allen that he or his oil services company financed a substantial portion of the 2000 remodeling of Stevens' Girdwood home.
Palin's remarks took on greater significance when The Associated Press reported later Thursday that Allen agreed to secretly tape telephone calls with Stevens after authorities confronted the Veco executive with evidence that he had bribed Alaska lawmakers. The Washington Post on Friday confirmed the existence of the taped phone calls between Stevens and Allen. It's not clear what was said during the calls, or how many were recorded.
As part of its sweeping inquiry into public corruption in Alaska, the FBI taped thousands of hours of phone conversations between Veco executives and state lawmakers. They also recorded secret video in Suite 604 of Juneau's Baranof Hotel, where Allen and fellow Veco executive Rick Smith plotted with Kott on how to move the industry's preferred version of a new oil tax through the Legislature in 2006.
Nearly two months after federal agents' much-publicized search of the Girdwood house, Stevens has yet to comment on the investigation. He did tell Alaska reporters in Washington, before the July raid, that he paid every renovation bill that was given to him.
Stevens' spokesman Aaron Saunders said Friday that the senator would have no comment, and referred the Daily News to the statement the senator has been issuing since July.
Stevens has maintained that it would be an obstruction of justice to talk about the investigation -- or explain his role in it. In his now-familiar statement, Stevens says, "I continue to believe this investigation should proceed to its conclusion without any appearance that I have attempted to influence its outcome."
Friday afternoon, when CNN reporters staked Stevens out on Capitol Hill to ask him about the wiretapping, he strode down the hallway of the Hart Senate office building with his suit jacket slung casually over his shoulder. He would not answer questions about the investigation or the reports that the FBI had recorded his conversations with Allen.
"It's a nice day," Stevens said, in response to questions. "I hope you're enjoying it. I'm having a great day."
'ALASKA'S NAME IS MUD'
Palin said her biggest concern about the ongoing corruption investigation, being run by the FBI and Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, is that it continues to make Alaska look as though it's a place where lawmakers can be bought. That's an impediment to developing the state's resources, Palin said, including the development of a natural gas pipeline.
"I think people are just kind of asking about the commitment that Alaskans have to change the political climate up here to a climate where (residents) can trust that the decisions the state government is making are based on the best interest of Alaskans, not due to undue influence," she said.
Other than Palin, most Alaska Republicans have been reluctant to take a public position on Stevens' unwillingness to provide more information. And even fewer want to wade into a difference of political opinion between the country's longest-serving GOP senator and a governor whose election last year represented a changing of the guard in the state's politics.
"Whether the governor or senator or anyone else has an opinion, the wheels of justice are going to turn, and none of us know what the outcome is going to be," said Jim Whitaker, a former Republican state lawmaker who serves as mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, recently attended a gathering of legislators from Western states in Wyoming. He said politicians from other states want to know how Alaska will open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development or build a gas pipeline with a cloud hovering over its congressional delegation.
"Alaska's name is mud right now."
He said that he's not passing judgment on Stevens and that it would be wrong to simply hound him for political reasons, but that he also worries about the national backlash against the state.
Others were critical of Palin, including former Rep. Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state representative from Anchorage who ran against her last year as an independent. He said that he'd love to hear what Stevens has to say but that it makes sense for Stevens to keep quiet so it doesn't look as if he's trying to influence the inquiry.
SILENCE ROUSES SUSPICIONS
For many of his constituents, Stevens' non-answers have grown frustrating, and they've created a "whiff of wrongdoing," said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat and former prosecutor from Anchorage who co-chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
French said it is time for Stevens to "at least give us his side of the story."
"Like a lot of folks, I think when you hold that job, you hold a public trust," French said. "Your relationship with the public is different than that of an ordinary citizen who gets pounced on by the FBI. It's not obstruction of justice to get in front of the cameras and say 'I did nothing wrong.' "
News that he was the subject of a federal wiretap hasn't changed Stevens' status in the Senate. When his home was raided, at least two government watchdog groups called for him to step down from his powerful committee posts until the federal investigation has been resolved.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last month that because Stevens "maintains his innocence" and no charges have been filed, his Republican colleagues will not ask him to step down from committees or refer the matter to the Senate Ethics committee.
Reporter Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage contributed to this story. Read Erika Bolstad and Hopkins on the Alaska Politics blog at adn.com/alaskapolitics.
By ERIKA BOLSTAD