WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who funneled billions of dollars to his home state over six terms in office and became one the most powerful and combative congressmen of his generation, died from injuries sustained in a plane crash Monday in southwest Alaska. He was 86.
Stevens served 40 years in the Senate, longer than any other Republican in history. Starting out as a little-known envoy from a remote state, he used a combination of blunt aggression and deft political maneuvering to become an influential power broker who guaranteed a steady stream of federal dollars to Alaska.
He narrowly lost a bid for re-election in 2008, days after he was convicted of seven felonies for failing to disclose campaign gifts. The conviction was thrown out months after the trial because of allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
As chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, Stevens ensured that Alaska got the billions of dollars it needed to build modern transportation, education and sanitation systems despite the state's vast and remote terrain.
"Stevens money," as federal dollars came to be known in Alaska, transformed the state from its largest cities to its furthest-flung hamlets and made its residents among the country's biggest per-capita beneficiaries of federal largesse.
He was a favorite target of government-spending watchdog groups, and the notorious "bridges to nowhere" he championed in 2005 became a national symbol of out-of-control pork politics.
Stevens, a self-described "mean, miserable SOB," was unapologetic about defending the interests of the nation's northern frontier.
"They sent me here," he once said simply, "to stand up for the state of Alaska."
Stevens molded Alaska through more than just money. By reaching across the aisle to form alliances with his Democratic counterparts, he established himself early in his career as a senator who could pass major legislation.
He played a leading role in crafting the landmark 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which addressed indigenous land claims by creating native corporations instead of reservations. In exchange for $15 billion and title to 44 million acres of ancestral homeland, native corporations gave up their claims on the rest of the state.
That agreement paved the way for a 1973 bill authorizing the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, another Stevens victory.
The 800-mile pipeline is an essential component of the state's oil industry, which now makes up nearly a third of Alaska's economy.
"The job of Alaska's congressional delegation has always been to pursue any project that has any promise of economic development," said Stephen Haycox, a historian of Alaska and the American West. "Ted Stevens understood that right from the very beginning."
As chairman or ranking member on the defense appropriations subcommittee for more than 20 years, Stevens was a notorious hawk who brought hundreds of millions of dollars in defense spending to his state.
He also pushed through legislation that made life easier in the more remote parts of Alaska. He modified postal rates to cut the cost of ordering groceries by mail and created the Denali Commission, an effort modeled on the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority.
It provided millions of dollars a year to improve sewage, drinking water systems and other public health infrastructure in Alaska's rural villages.
For all his power in Washington, Stevens occasionally struggled with personal finances. During the 1980s, investments he'd made in cattle and crabbing went bad and forced him to sell his home in Maryland.
He escaped from those difficult straits when he inherited a yacht worth about $400,000 from the publisher of the Fairbanks newspaper.
In 2007, Bill Allen, a friend of Stevens' and former CEO of an oil pipeline company called Veco Corp., pleaded guilty to paying three state lawmakers $400,000 in exchange for favorable votes on oil and gas legislation.
An FBI investigation into the scandal resulted in an investigation of Stevens and a raid of his home in Girdwood, south of Anchorage. He was indicted on seven felony counts of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal $250,000 in gifts, including a sled dog, an electronic massage chair and major home renovations overseen by Allen for which Stevens had paid only a fraction of the cost.
Stevens said any omissions from his disclosure forms were the result of sloppy bookkeeping, not a criminal attempt to circumvent the law. He said he had paid the bill that Allen had sent for work on his Girdwood home, trusting that the bill accurately reflected services rendered.
Saying he hoped to clear his name before the 2008 election, Stevens insisted on a speedy trial and took to the witness stand. Just eight days before voters went to the polls, he was convicted on all seven counts.
He lost a narrow race to Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage.
Less than six month later, newly confirmed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder abandoned the conviction against Stevens after revelations that federal prosecutors had withheld evidence, including key details that supported the defendant's claim that he hadn't known he was being undercharged for renovations.