A year before Alaska’s last gubernatorial election, Ben Stevens was thinking about running.
Stevens is a son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and a former Alaska Senate president. He’d been out of the public eye for a decade, after he decided against running for re-election amid an ethics controversy that grew into bribery allegations against him. Stevens was ultimately investigated by four federal agencies. He was never charged with a crime.
Since then, Stevens had worked on a ship in the Aleutian Islands, then run a tugboat company in Anchorage. Now, politics was calling him back.
“I’ve lived through a few storms in my life,” he said at the time, with the Republican primary a year away. “I think I know what it takes to survive, and I know what it takes to move into the future.”
Stevens never joined the race, but he found a job in the governor’s office nonetheless.
In December, he was hired as a policy advisor to Mike Dunleavy, the Republican who was elected governor a month earlier. Then, in July, Dunleavy announced that Stevens would become his chief of staff — making him one of the most powerful unelected officials in the state.
People who have worked with Stevens in the Capitol say his political skills and dealmaking experience will be an asset for Dunleavy as he heads into his second legislative session, after a bruising first session that incited a recall campaign.
But Stevens’ appointment also comes with a potential liability: His rise to an influential, public role revives some of the questions raised by Legislature’s 2006 corruption scandal — like the allegations by two former oil industry executives who said their company paid Stevens bribes when he was a senator.
Today, Stevens and his family maintain financial connections to Alaska’s natural resource industries and business figures that routinely lobby the government. This includes the company pushing the controversial Pebble mine project, which, according to a spokesman, last year paid Ben Stevens $50,000 to serve on a citizens advisory committee. And Stevens’ wife, Elizabeth, works part-time for an advocacy group that pushes for lower oil taxes.
For Dunleavy, meanwhile, Stevens’ elevation may signal a shift. In the early months of his administration, the governor pushed an uncompromising conservative agenda, proposing dramatic budget reductions and legislation that were opposed by some of his fellow Republican lawmakers.
Stevens’ promotion coincides with the departures of two of Dunleavy’s more hardline senior aides — Tuckerman Babcock, Stevens’ predecessor as chief of staff, and Donna Arduin, the former budget director.
Stevens represents a different, pragmatic brand of GOP politics, with closer links to business and the oil industry that powers the state’s economy. And some lawmakers see him as a competent deputy who could help bridge the rift that’s formed between Dunleavy’s administration and legislative leaders from his own party.
“Governor Dunleavy needed to make some changes for the betterment of his organization, and I think Ben Stevens was a good pick for his chief of staff,” said Sitka Republican Bert Stedman, who served in the state Senate with Stevens and still holds the same seat. “Serving in the Senate, putting end of the year packages together — he knows how it’s done, knows you don’t get everything, you’ve got to compromise, give and take and put a package together that can get the votes.”
Stevens has always maintained his innocence in the 2006 corruption scandal. But he refused to publicly explain what he did in exchange for the money he received from the oil industry company while he was a senator, a total of more than $240,000 over five years.
“I think the outcome of the federal investigation pretty much answers any questions,” Stevens said in 2017, when he was considering running for governor. “The outcome is the answer.”
Ted Stevens, meanwhile, was convicted in 2008 of breaking federal ethics laws by failing to report some $250,000 in gifts and services from one of the same oil industry executives that accused his son. But that conviction was dismissed the following year by a federal judge who said prosecutors had botched the case by withholding evidence that could have helped exonerate the senator — namely a private interview that prosecutors conducted with the oil executive that undercut some of his damaging testimony.
A spokesman for the governor’s office, Matt Shuckerow, responded to requests for comment on this story with a brief email Tuesday: “The Stevens family has been falsely accused for years. Unfortunately, this appears to be the same tired piece others have already written.”
Through Shuckerow, Ben Stevens declined to be interviewed.
A “real deal, tough guy Deadliest Catch Captain”
Stevens is the youngest of three sons of Ted Stevens, who served 40 years in the U.S. Senate and was renowned for his fierce advocacy for his home state. Federal policies he pushed were instrumental in the development of Alaska’s infrastructure, and its resource industries like oil, mining and commercial fishing.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Stevens chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee – a job that allowed him to steer immense amounts of federal money to Alaska. Between 1999 and 2005, one group calculated that he and the rest of Alaska’s Congressional delegation sent more than $3 billion to the state through earmarks – specific projects designated by individual lawmakers.
Ben Stevens spent 15 years as a commercial fisherman, catching just about “every species that had a gill,” he once said. Ted Stevens said his son started as a dock hand in Kodiak, before he turned 20; Ben Stevens also worked in Bristol Bay and captained a crab boat in the Bering Sea. One longtime family friend, political consultant Art Hackney, described Ben Stevens as a “real deal, tough guy Deadliest Catch captain.”
Stevens started in politics in 2001 at age 42, after he applied to fill a vacancy left by a GOP state senator who resigned. Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles chose Stevens from a list of four candidates advanced by Republican Party leaders.
Stevens quickly rose into the Senate’s leadership as a reliable GOP vote who, given his family history, was treated with deference by his colleagues, said Andrew Halcro, a former Republican legislator. Observers expected him to follow his father into higher political office, Halcro added.
Halcro was one of the three other candidates vying for the Senate seat that Stevens was chosen for. He said Stevens had a reputation for testiness with colleagues and constituents, in a different way than his father, who was known for his explosive temper. One incident that generated headlines was when Ben Stevens, in an angry email to a critic from Wasilla, called her “Valley trash.”
“Ted fought for Alaska,” Halcro said. “Ben was fighting with Alaskans.”
But Stedman, the senator who served with Stevens, said he never found him to be cold or standoffish — just serious.
“When he’s working, he’s working, and he’s paying attention to what’s on his desk,” said Stedman. “I thought Ben was very astute in the politics of the building. Very quick study, had a very good grasp of people’s positions, and would listen to the arguments. He has a lot of political skill, and it showed.”
“I’ve been living with it my whole life”
Once Stevens entered the Legislature, he had to file financial disclosures with the state. And those disclosures prompted news stories about how the Republican lawmaker was earning income – and about whether Stevens was being hired because of his connection to his powerful father, rather than his own qualifications.
Critics cited his job as chief executive of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Anchorage, which paid an average of $238,000 a year for the three years before he joined the Senate. The games relied on $13.6 million of government money, which organization officials said Ted Stevens helped deliver.
While Ben Stevens held that job, he also ran a consulting business on the side, Stevens and Associates. He founded the business in the mid-1990s as his fishing career wound down, and kept it alive while he served as a state senator.
His clients included a number of fishing interests, which built on his work in the fishing industry, but there was also an Alaska Native corporation and an oil-field services company. And many of those same consulting clients benefited from legislation pushed by Ted Stevens, or actions taken by federal agencies that he worked with.
At the time, Ted Stevens said his son’s business success came at his own initiative, while Ben Stevens acknowledged that people sometimes attributed his success to his father.
“I’ve been living with it my whole life,” he said in a 2002 interview. “But there’s nothing I can do to get rid of him as my dad.”
Ben Stevens’ client that drew the most scrutiny was Veco, the oil-field services company.
Stevens started working for Veco in 1995, six years before his state Senate appointment.
Veco’s chief executive, Bill Allen, was a friend of Ted Stevens – the two men were once partners in a group that owned a thoroughbred racehorse. And while Veco was paying Ben Stevens, the company benefited from several actions taken by his father. In 1999, Ted Stevens intervened on Veco’s behalf in a dispute it had with Pakistan’s government over payment for work the company did on construction of a pipeline, the L.A. Times reported in 2003. Ted Stevens also mandated that federal money be used to train Veco’s and other Alaska companies’ Russian workers, the Times said.
After Ben Stevens was appointed to the Senate in 2001, he remained on contract for Veco, collecting about $50,000 a year. By then, Allen testified later, Stevens had four children.
“How am I supposed to say, ‘Now that you’re a senator, Ben, I can’t give you more money,’” Allen said at the corruption trial of a different lawmaker. “I couldn’t do that.”
Stevens’ connection to Veco became a focal point when he was Senate president in 2006, the last year of his term. That was when lawmakers were trying to pass a new long-term oil-tax regime, seen by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski as a key step toward building a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.
House lawmakers approved legislation to set the oil-tax rate at 23.5 percent. Veco was lobbying for a tax rate no higher than 20 percent, and one of Stevens’ colleagues in the Senate, Gene Therriault, said that in private meetings, Stevens objected to proposals higher than that rate. When the Senate ultimately approved a 22.5 percent tax, Stevens said it was non-negotiable, “like concrete,” and the Senate’s rate – one percent less than the one passed earlier by the House – was the one signed into law.
Some of the disclosures made as part of the federal investigation suggested that Stevens’ policy stance was guided by his financial arrangement with Veco.
An attorney for Allen, Veco’s chief executive, subsequently signed plea agreement documents that said Veco’s “consulting” payments to Stevens were not for consulting but instead were for “giving advice, lobbying colleagues, and taking official acts in matters before the Legislature.” The signed documents said Stevens did almost no other work for Veco, that the value of his compensation far exceeded the value of his non-legislative consulting work, and that Allen and Stevens had strategized about how to “kill” legislation that Veco didn’t support.
Stevens’ Senate office was searched twice by the FBI. But while several other Veco-aligned legislators were convicted of bribery-related crimes, Stevens was never charged. His attorney, at one point, questioned the validity of Allen’s allegations by noting that the former Veco executive was trying to minimize penalties for his own criminal conduct. And Stevens, in a 2005 news conference, said: “I’ve never, and would never, cross the line between my personal business affairs and the oath of office I signed to serve in the Alaska state Senate.”
Nonetheless, Stevens never explained what he did for Veco in exchange for the consulting payments, which totaled $243,250 over the five years he worked as a senator. “I don’t have to say that,” he said at the news conference, noting that he’d filed his required financial disclosures with state regulators.
“He gave up a really good job”
Stevens did not run for re-election in 2006. A year later, he spent time in the Aleutian Islands as a crewman on a boat that was supporting a planned Arctic offshore drilling effort by Shell, according to an Anchorage Daily News report. He subsequently worked as a captain for Kirby Corp., a shipping company, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In 2015, his profile says, Stevens became president of Cook Inlet Tug and Barge, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Foss Maritime that has about 35 employees.
His income from the company was between $200,000 and $500,000 for the first 11 months of 2018, according to the financial disclosure that Stevens was required to file after taking his job in the governor’s office. (The rules require income to be reported within a broad range, rather than a specific number.) As chief of staff, Stevens now earns $175,000 a year, according to the governor’s office.
“In the marine world in Alaska, working as the president of Cook Inlet and really running your own business is a pretty enviable spot. He was perfect for that job – and so to give that up took something,” John Parrott, Foss’ chief executive, said in a phone interview. “He gave up a really good job.”
Another significant source of income for Stevens was his position on the advisory committee for the proposed Pebble mining project. The massive copper and gold prospect is among the world’s largest, but it’s been controversial in Alaska because of its proximity to the huge, commercially valuable run of sockeye salmon into Bristol Bay. The mine’s opponents have criticized Dunleavy for taking positions that they see as favorable to the project, like sending a letter in July that encouraged a company to invest in Pebble.
The advisory committee was formed in mid-2017 as a sounding board for the company as it was developing a scaled-back version of its project plans, said Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole. Members included Alaska Native leaders and former government and military officials, and Stevens was added in early 2018 for his “public policy expertise,” Heatwole said.
The committee had a goal of two to three in-person meetings annually, as well as periodic phone calls. Members were paid $50,000 a year if they chose to collect it, which Stevens did, Heatwole said.
“The amount of time and caliber of people we were choosing – we thought it was professionally courteous to offer up a stipend,” Heatwole said.
Stevens left the committee when he took his job in the governor’s office, and state law does not specifically restrict public officials from participating in decisions or discussions involving their former employers. A spokesman for the governor’s office, Matt Shuckerow, didn’t respond to questions about how Stevens would participate in any Pebble-related decisions.
“The clock has ticked”
Stevens’ wife, Elizabeth, meanwhile, remains the executive director and manager of a dormant group, Keep Alaska Competitive Coalition, that’s fought to hold oil taxes at lower rates. The president of the group’s board is Jim Jansen, a longtime friend of Ted Stevens and the current chairman of transportation company Lynden Inc. — whose subsidiary hired Ben Stevens to work in the Aleutian Islands after he left the state Senate.
The coalition helped push for the passage of Senate Bill 21 in 2013, which remains the broad framework of Alaska’s oil-tax regime and which critics have attacked for a system of credits and deductions that they say is too generous to the oil industry. The coalition also campaigned against the legislation’s repeal during a referendum campaign in 2014, and it has fought other changes to the state’s oil tax system as they’ve come up in the Legislature. The group pays a Juneau-based lobbyist, Reed Stoops, $30,000 a year.
Elizabeth Stevens’ income from the group was between $20,000 and $50,000 last year, according to Ben Stevens’ financial disclosure.
After Ben Stevens was hired as Dunleavy’s chief of staff, the coalition assessed whether his job presented a conflict with his wife’s work and concluded that it didn’t, Jansen said.
“The governor, in his platform, was anti-oil taxes,” Jansen said. “And Ben has always kind of come from that school.”
In political circles, Stevens remains a polarizing figure. Halcro, the former legislator, said that if he were governor, he wouldn’t let Stevens “within 500 miles” of his cabinet.
Stedman, meanwhile, said “the clock has ticked for well over a decade,” and that Stevens will help the governor achieve his goals.
“Let Ben Stevens prove otherwise. My guess is he’s going to want to prove up that he is capable and fair and concerned about the well-being of the state,” Stedman said. That might be a different view than some of his colleagues who served during the 2006 corruption scandal, but he doesn’t think those events will repeat themselves, he added.
“Some of us will always be watching for that type of stuff,” Stedman said. “Because we don’t want to do it again.”
This story was produced by Alaska’s Energy Desk and is reprinted with permission.