Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has dropped his support for a controversial salmon marketing program he created that has funneled tens of millions of federal dollars to fishing industry interests in Alaska and has become an element of a Justice Department corruption investigation into the Senator’s former aide and his son, ex-state Sen. Ben Stevens (R).
According to the office of Ted Stevens, the veteran lawmaker has decided to stop backing the long-standing project, called the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, which he first created in 2003 as a federally chartered nonprofit organization. Ben Stevens and Trevor McCabe — a former aide to Ted Stevens, fishing industry lobbyist and business partner with Ben Stevens — have served on the group’s board of directors, as have representatives from a number of fishing concerns that have made significant campaign contributions to Ted Stevens over the years.
“The Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board did not receive funds in the [fiscal 2007 continuing resolution],” a spokesman for Stevens said. “The board is eligible to participate in the competitive grant process and apply for funding from the Promote and Develop Fishery Products and Research Pertaining to American Fisheries fund. The Senator believes that securing funding for the board in FY08 will be almost impossible given the current anti-earmark environment on the Hill. He will focus on other priorities for Alaska this year.”
The AFMB has become a key element in the FBI’s growing corruption probe in Alaska, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The probe already has resulted in the arrests of several state lawmakers and two close friends of the elder Stevens, VECO Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith.
Allen, who also owns a race horse with Ted Stevens, and Smith pleaded guilty to bribery, extortion and fraud charges Monday and are cooperating with federal agents. Although Ben Stevens was not specifically named in their pleas, he was clearly identified as “State Senator B.”
While federal agents originally had been focused on the oil industry’s role in influencing state legislators, their investigation has widened significantly since a series of raids on lawmakers and lobbyists in the state last summer. In December, federal agents issued a flurry of subpoenas to fishing industry companies, executives and lobbyists in Alaska, Seattle and Washington, D.C., targeting industry giants Trident Seafoods and Icicle Seafoods as well as the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade organization connected to Ben Stevens.
Sources close to the companies said they have been cooperating with federal investigators, and officials from the companies subpoenaed have denied any wrongdoing.
The AFMB’s connection to the FBI probe of Stevens’ son has brought renewed scrutiny on the project and the way it has doled out millions of federal dollars since 2003. Critics of the AFMB, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have long complained that it is little more than a pork-barrel conduit for special interests and large fishing companies in Alaska.
Perhaps the most high-profile example of what McCain and others call wasteful spending was a grant from the AFMB to Alaska Airlines to paint a jumbo jet to resemble a salmon, a project that cost millions but that was justified as a way to advertise Alaska salmon products.