OPINION: Let’s set the record straight: Ted Stevens was framed.

I was unjust to Ted Stevens. I think a lot of us were.

In 2008, after 40 years in the U.S. Senate, a jury found him guilty of a felony for failing to disclose gifts he received. Eight days later, he narrowly lost re-election. The next year, the verdict was set aside because the prosecution had failed to turn over evidence to the defense.

This sounded like a technicality. Stevens did receive remodeling work for free and didn’t report it, and the giver, Bill Allen, was on video bribing other Alaska politicians. The impression that was left was that Stevens got off, not that he was innocent.

The judge in the case ordered an investigation of the Department of Justice lawyers who prosecuted Stevens. That investigation wasn’t complete when Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010 or when Allen got out of prison in 2011. By the time the 500-page report finally came out in 2012, this was old news.

But I recently had occasion to read that special prosecutor report and another 500-page report on the case. I realized I had it wrong all these years.

Stevens was innocent. By my reading of the evidence, Bill Allen framed him and the prosecutors went along.

That got me thinking about the excessive power of prosecutors. Their individual integrity and lack of bias are the only real protection against having our lives destroyed by the criminal justice system.


So what does that tell us about the Donald Trump prosecutions? I’ll write about that in my next column.

Let me take you back to 2002. A remodel of Sen. Stevens’ Girdwood ski cabin had gone sideways. Stevens was too busy to deal with it. He hardly ever used the cabin. His friend Bill Allen, who used it more, stepped in to finish the job with his own guys from Veco, his huge oil field services company.

Sen. Bob Torricelli of New Jersey had just gotten in trouble for receiving gifts — a watch, a rug, an Italian suit — and Stevens mentioned that case when he wrote to Allen twice that fall to make sure he submitted invoices for all his work. He said to give the bills to a friend in Girdwood who was managing the project.

Stevens also emailed his assistant to explain this arrangement to pay for the work. Bill Allen’s foreman on the job believed the bills had been submitted, too. Stevens’ wife, Catherine, paid all the invoices the couple received.

But Bill Allen didn’t send the invoices.

In 2003, the FBI opened the Polar Pen investigation of corruption in the Alaska Legislature. In 2006, agents caught Bill Allen on video in a Juneau hotel room bribing Republican legislators to stop an oil tax increase. He then flipped and agreed to testify against those he had corrupted in return for leniency in sentencing and immunity for his family and his company — which would allow him to keep his enormous fortune.

Allen offered to testify he did free work on the Girdwood house, a gift Stevens had not reported. But Allen was a questionable witness. Besides his many political crimes, he was a pedophile. He gave gifts and money to a 15-year-old girl and her family to repeatedly have sex with her. Then he got the girl to lie about it in an affidavit.

Federal prosecutors knew about that induced perjury in 2004 but hid and denied it to protect Allen’s credibility as a witness. They also asked the Anchorage Police Department to back off from their investigation of Allen for sexual abuse of a minor in 2004 because of another case.

In 2008, prosecutors were getting ready to indict Stevens when they received copies of his 2002 notes to Allen mentioning Torricelli and requesting invoices, and his email to his assistant. The lawyers’ internal emails show their alarm about how this evidence could hurt their case. It supported Stevens’ explanation that he had asked for invoices, thought he got them, and paid all the invoices he received.

The lawyers and an FBI agent met with Allen and asked him about the Torricelli notes. He said he didn’t remember them. Conveniently, the agent and the attorneys forgot about that meeting and lost their record of it, so it was never disclosed. They would also keep the foreman’s testimony about the invoices quiet.

Allen had not yet been sentenced for his many crimes, and he knew his own jail time would depend on his cooperation with prosecutors. The FBI agent made it clear to him that the lawyers were upset that he didn’t remember Stevens’ notes. He said she told him, “You better figure out or remember what you done with this Torricelli note from Ted.”

Allen changed his story just in time for the trial. Now he “remembered” that Stevens had told him to ignore the notes, saying they were just a “cover your ass” message.

When Allen testified to that on the stand, the defense was shocked. They had never heard this version of the story before. In cross-examination, Stevens’ lawyer asked Allen when he had first told this “cover your ass” story to prosecutors. Allen said that had always been his story. Prosecutors who knew that was a lie said nothing. In fact, they repeated it in their closing argument.

Once the government’s lawyers were caught, they came up with many elaborate excuses for how they had made so many errors that all happened to go against Stevens (there were many, many more than I’ve mentioned here). Their excuses are a lot less credible than the explanations Stevens gave them for not reporting gifts. The special counsel found the prosecutors’ misconduct was intentional.

But their motive was not political. Republican George W. Bush was president during Stevens’ prosecution. It was President Barack Obama’s attorney general who cleared Stevens.

Allen had become one of the richest and most powerful men in Alaska by lying, cheating and bribing. When he was caught, he made a deal to avoid punishment. I imagine he had held back the invoices intentionally to taint Stevens.

This proved an effective strategy: Allen got less than two years in prison. He was never prosecuted at all for his sex crimes. And after prison, he lived more than a decade more, enjoying his riches.


The only remedy left is to correct our memories of Ted Stevens. And remember that police and prosecutors, if they lack integrity, can convict almost anyone.

Next: Donald Trump’s prosecution is a lot bigger than Trump.

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Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.