Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Wednesday said he will give to charity $10,000 his campaign accepted this year from the political action committee of indicted Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Stevens was indicted a day earlier on federal corruption charges related to gifts from an oil-services company.
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McConnell did not say what will become of another $10,000 his own PAC, called the Bluegrass Committee, has accepted from Stevens' PAC since 2005.
At least two other Republican senators, Pat Roberts in Kansas and Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, similarly agreed to give away Stevens' campaign donations, as GOP incumbents seeking re-election this year sought to distance themselves from the 84-year-old senator and his Northern Lights PAC.
The PAC has given more than $1 million to Republican politicians. At the same time, it has taken tens of thousands of dollars from top executives of VECO Corp., the controversial company at the center of Stevens' indictment and a widening corruption scandal in Alaska state government.
VECO founder and former chief executive Bill Allen — a big donor to Stevens' PAC — pleaded guilty last year to bribing public officials and is now cooperating with the FBI and prosecutors.
Bruce Lunsford, McConnell's Democratic challenger in the Nov. 4 election, called earlier in the day for McConnell to ”do the honorable thing and donate these funds to a charity here in Kentucky immediately. ... Sen. Stevens and his potentially nefarious relationship with an energy company is a textbook example of what is wrong in Washington.“
In a statement, McConnell campaign spokesman Justin Brasell said the campaign will give $10,000, the amount it received from Stevens, to Wayside Christian Mission in Louisville. That's the same cause to which McConnell two years ago gave $18,500 of his donations from the clients of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was sent to prison for felony corruption of public officials.
In the same statement, McConnell attacked opponent Lunsford for accepting campaign donations from people who in the past have been accused of wrongdoing, including former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan. Lundergan was convicted of violating state ethics law, but that conviction was later overturned.
McConnell has refused on Capitol Hill to comment on Stevens' indictment, but he describes Stevens as a longtime friend and treasured colleague.
McConnell last year led a half-hour tribute to Stevens on the Senate floor, recognizing him as the longest-serving Republican senator and praising him for his billions of dollars in earmarked projects back home. Stevens' so-called ”Bridge to Nowhere“ became a potent symbol for critics of earmarks.
”Much of the Alaska's progress is a direct result of Ted Stevens,“ McConnell said last year. ”It starts at the airport, Ted Stevens International Airport. It runs through the (oil) pipeline ... the double-hull tankers that move along the shore, and all through the homes and the remotest reaches of Alaska that have radio and televisions because of Ted.“
Kentucky's other Republican senator, Jim Bunning, took $10,000 from Stevens' PAC in 2003. Bunning's office did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Before they decide whether to return donations — particularly in the middle of an expensive campaign — politicians have to decide exactly how tainted the money is, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
With Stevens' PAC, only some of the funds came from VECO executives, Sloan said. So lawmakers might feel less concern than they would if they had taken donations directly from VECO executives, as Stevens and other Alaska politicians often did, Sloan said.
On the other hand, she added, politicians facing an election challenge can feel a lot of pressure, regardless of the details, once the source of their donations is enmeshed in scandal.
”Some people worried about giving back all their Larry Craig money“ after the Republican senator from Idaho pleaded guilty to attempting to solicit sex in an airport men's room, Sloan said. ”His money really wasn't involved in anything, but nobody wanted to be tied to Larry Craig in any way.“