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Keeping Sen. Ted Stevens' papers in Fairbanks would preserve historic record

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published July 12, 2015

For those who will write the history of modern Alaska, nearly 5,000 numbered boxes in the basement of the University of Alaska Fairbanks library are likely to be a critical element in achieving accuracy.

In those boxes is the written record of the Senate career of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the most influential members of Congress in the late 20th Century and the most influential Alaska leader. It's an enormous collection. Think of a paper column 6 feet wide by 6 feet deep that nearly touches the top of the Captain Cook Hotel.

But five years after Stevens' death, the millions of pages he accumulated over decades remain off-limits to researchers, locked away three floors below ground at the UAF Rasmuson Library. And it's not clear when or if that will change, or what might be removed from the papers before they become public.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that a workable solution to make the papers accessible -- while protecting private information -- could be put into place now.

The importance of this giant collection rests in the outsize role Stevens played in shaping Alaska. His quick mind and sometimes sharp tongue helped guide every major Alaska policy question during the last half-century, from the pipeline to post office subsidies, and from subsistence to schools.

When former Anchorage Daily News columnist Mike Doogan joked that Alaska adopt "The Ted" as its currency, he didn't inflate the man's impact on Alaska society. For decades before the name meant something else, Ted talks loomed large in Alaska.

What Stevens thought and did during 40 years behind the scenes in Congress is a large part of his legacy, spelled out in documents in the Rasmuson Library that could do more to show what transpired and why than any other source.

Under terms of an agreement he signed in 2009, most of the records should have become accessible to the public this year -- five years after his death -- with certain restrictions. But unless the Stevens family and the Ted Stevens Foundation have a change of heart, that's not going to happen.

Instead, the papers are to be trucked to a private office in Anchorage this summer where they will be reviewed by private archivists paid with state money. The Stevens Foundation says the papers will be made available to the public some day, but not until the millions of documents are examined. We have no clue how long that will take or what it will cost.

We also don't know if the private archivists and former Stevens staffers will be aggressive with a "when in doubt, throw it out" approach, sanitizing the collection and stripping away documents that might offend someone.

For instance, a remembrance by former public radio reporter Joel Southern that appears on the Ted Stevens Papers website mentions a photo that some might find unworthy of preservation. It happened at a moment when Stevens was at odds with David Whitney, a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. The reporter saw Stevens, who was waiting for a photographer, on the Capitol steps.

"Whitney called out to get Stevens' attention, and Stevens flipped Whitney a middle finger in return -- just as the photographer snapped the picture. According to aides, the photo remained in Stevens' files a long time," Southern said.

When Whitney stopped covering Stevens, the senator wanted to give him a copy of the photo as a gag. "Aides could not find it, so instead David got a box containing a glove, which had all but the middle finger folded back," Southern said.

Call it an Incredible Hulk moment. If the photo remains somewhere in the massive files, it should be retained, though an overly sensitive private curator might deem it inappropriate.

Private property

When Stevens signed the UA agreement in 2009, he did so with the expectation that he would work with archivists to go through the massive collection, Catherine Stevens, his widow, told UA President Pat Gamble in a letter early this year.

"Unfortunately, due to his untimely death, that never happened," she said. Stevens died on Aug. 9, 2010, in a plane crash in Southwest Alaska that claimed five lives and injured four people.

Catherine said she appreciates the work the university did in organizing and preparing a database, but "much more remains to properly prepare the collection for public access."

"To achieve this, I have made the difficult decision it is necessary to terminate the deposit agreement with the university and to relocate the papers to a private facility in Anchorage where the archival process will continue," she wrote to Gamble in February.

The foundation plans to move the collection to a Midtown office building where a couple of archivists and a few assistants are expected to carry on the work, helped by former Stevens staff members who live in Anchorage.

Under long-standing Congressional tradition, many documents accumulated during years of public service are treated as private property. Congress made certain presidential records public after Watergate, but it did not follow recommendations to do the same for itself.

The Stevens family is free to decide what to do with the collection, but the best way to preserve the historical record for Alaska is to keep it intact at the Rasmuson Library.

The 2009 agreement includes a comprehensive confidentiality statement that anyone accessing the records would have to sign, promising to keep certain details secret. The boxes and the folders have been cataloged, but not the individual papers.

The way to handle the privacy issue is that researchers who want to see boxes or folders about a certain topic could allow the librarians to review the boxes before approving access. This could be cumbersome, but workable, and given the size of the collection, it is the best option.

Personal papers are off-limits and not intended to be part of the collection, along with family letters, personal financial information and other specifics spelled out in the agreement.

4,000 boxes in storage

A former archivist to Stevens, Will Arthur, gave an oral history interview in which he said that during Stevens' legal battles at the end of his career, the Justice Department and the senator's attorneys made poor use of his Senate archives. "They came in and they removed files from the office. I don't think they ever realized that we had 4,000 boxes in storage," he said of the Justice Department.

The Stevens agreement to loan the papers to the university says much of the collection would be public five years after his death. While family documents and others would be removed, certain records would be kept confidential for up to 50 years.

There are provisions in place to protect those who need protection. UAF has the largest and the finest library in Alaska and it already holds the congressional papers of the late Sens. E.L. "Bob" Bartlett, Ernest Gruening and others, including former Sen. Mike Gravel.

Its collection also includes the papers of former Sen. Frank Murkowski, but the 1,700 boxes in that collection have yet to be cataloged and made accessible. The lack of private and/or public funding has delayed the processing of the Murkowski papers for more than a decade, which is a ridiculous delay that the university and the state need to address.

In the case of the Stevens papers, funding has not been the issue.

In 2009, BP gave $1 million to support the project and key companies in the pollock fishing fleet chipped in $250,000. The university added $435,000 in assistance to the Stevens project.

But it was an action by former Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Legislature in 2014 that makes the strongest case for why the Stevens papers should stay put.

At the request of Parnell, the Senate Finance Committee, co-chaired by Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly and Anchorage Sen. Kevin Meyer, introduced a revised budget bill on April 9, 2014, that included $1 million to process the Stevens papers. The money was not intended for the university, but for the Stevens Foundation.

I have found no record of a public hearing on the decision, made when the state deficit was only in the billion-dollar range. Given the drastic change in state finances since then, a new approach is warranted.

"State funding will contribute to the ongoing private financing efforts to preserve the collection for future generations of Alaska," said a synopsis released by the state May 28, 2014, after the legislative session.

When Parnell announced the plan, he said it was to "preserve, digitize, and allow the public to access Sen. Ted Stevens' records, notes and photographs." He said it was a "worthy historical endeavor to preserve these important documents and ensure all Alaskans can access the senator's legacy work."

With the $1 million from the state, which is to be reimbursed as it is spent, there is now more public money pledged to the enterprise than private money. That's why the most sensible action is for the foundation to turn the state grant over to the university and keep the collection at UAF.

In a long exchange of emails and two phone conversations with lawyer Tim McKeever, former Stevens aide and the chairman of the Stevens Foundation, I said I believe there is dissatisfaction on the part of the foundation with how the university has handled the papers. It appears to be based on worries that documents in the collection could prove embarrassing to Stevens or others and could become public under the five-year disclosure provision.

He rejected my argument and said it is about protecting privacy and removing things that should not be made public. He said the foundation is committed to making the collection public as soon as it can, though he does not have a schedule.

He said the university charges overhead on grants, so it is cheaper and more efficient to have the foundation do the work in Anchorage with state money. But the foundation also has to pay for private office and storage space in Anchorage, which is overhead of a different sort. In addition, the 2009 agreement has provisions for the foundation to repay the university for certain expenses if the agreement is terminated, costs that could be avoided by keeping the collection in place.

The foundation has financial resources that it has not used or contributed to UAF to further the processing of the collection at UAF.

According to the most recent filing available with the IRS, the foundation had $2.9 million in assets at the end of 2013. It has $3.25 million now, he said.

Documentary

McKeever, along with other former staff members, lobbyists and Stevens backers, helped start the foundation when Stevens was still in office. It received its first significant funding during a 2004 effort that included a $5,000-per-plate dinner in Washington, D.C. Among other things, the purpose of the foundation was to "preserve the records and mementos" of the senator.

At that time, Stevens was the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That year the foundation, similar to those created by other politicians, raised more than $1.5 million. For most of the last decade, its principal source of income has been from earnings on investments, according to IRS reports.

Asked why the foundation hasn't spent its assets to process the records, McKeever said the foundation has other ideas that will cost money, including making a documentary about Stevens, expanding an oral history, perhaps funding a biography and digitizing records.

"You obviously have the right to your opinions about where and how the papers should be processed. It appears that you disagree with our thoughts about the best way to accomplish our goal of making the papers available to Alaskans," he said.

If the goal is to make the papers available to Alaskans, the documents are in the right place now. Restructuring the $1 million grant from 2014 to support the university work would accelerate the process and be a superior way to use public money.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

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