WASHINGTON – Justice Department officials investigating Sen. Ted Stevens are examining whether federal funds he steered to an Alaska wildlife research center may have enriched a former aide, say officials familiar with the probe.
The Commerce Department and the Interior Department's inspector general are assisting in looking at how millions of dollars that Stevens, R-Alaska, obtained for the nonprofit Alaska SeaLife Center were spent, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the investigation's sensitivity.
The SeaLife Center probe is in addition to an investigation by federal grand juries here and in Alaska into Stevens' ties to an oil company executive convicted of bribing Alaska state legislators.
The FBI on Monday raided Stevens' home in Girdwood, Alaska, in connection with that grand jury probe, which is focused on Stevens' dealings with oil field services contractor Bill Allen.
Last year, FBI raids on the offices of several Alaska lawmakers included Stevens' son, former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens. Neither the U.S. senator nor his son has been charged, and the elder Stevens has denied any wrongdoing.
Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska lawmakers, helped oversee a renovation project that more than doubled the size of Stevens' home in 2000. His company, VECO Inc., won tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts.
Stevens is the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and has for years chaired or been the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee that determines how and where federal taxes are spent.
Among the questions is how about $700,000 of nearly $4 million directed to the National Park Service wound up being paid to companies associated with Trevor McCabe, a former legislative director for Stevens, according to officials and others familiar with the deals.
The SeaLife Center got about a quarter of the $4 million and paid more than $500,000 for land next to it that belonged to a company owned by McCabe. The price was more than twice the land's appraised value. The center paid at least $200,000 more to a construction company in which McCabe was a managing partner to demolish a building on the land, which is now an open space in Seward's downtown.
Since the $50 million facility opened in 1998, it has proven to be one of Stevens' pet projects. Most of the public funding, or about $37 million, that went into building the SeaLife Center came from funds awarded to Alaska because of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Stevens also has steered at least $30 million toward the center's operations through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Commerce Department. That money has gone to the Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science, which manages the center and began in 1988 as a lobbying group.
McCabe also was a business partner with Ben Stevens in a consulting firm that federal investigators are interested in. Calls for comment to Stevens' congressional office, McCabe and the SeaLife Center went unreturned. Marcia Blaszak, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Anchorage, Alaska, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Exxon Valdez money — partly administered by the Interior Department — was intended to assist the SeaLife Center in restoring the damaged natural resources in the areas affected by the spill. But for the past five years, the center has done little new research in oil spill restoration.
"The Interior Department is seriously concerned that they are a party to misappropriation of a portion of the Exxon Valdez settlement," said John S. French, an environmental consultant in Seward and former member of a public advisory group on the settlement money. "My impression is that some people, not me, really started flagging the situation after the land sale by Trevor McCabe."