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Sen. Stevens Indicted On 7 Corruption Counts
That may explain why authorities charged Stevens with multiple violations of the Ethics in Government Act, which carry five-year maximum prison sentences, rather than bribery charges that could result in 15-year maximum terms, legal analysts said.
The ethics law requires elected officials to disclose gifts that exceed a few hundred dollars and debts that exceed $10,000 during any point in the year. Stevens flouted the requirements from 1999 to 2006, according to the indictment.
David H. Laufman, a former federal prosecutor and House ethics committee investigator, said bribery cases present significant challenges for prosecutors. "It's a very hard case from an evidentiary standpoint to bring because of the need of the government to put on evidence of a quid pro quo," he said.
In interviews with reporters and in his prepared statement yesterday, Stevens hinted that he will mount a defense based on his belief that he was paying for all the home renovations and labor costs himself. His attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., did not return calls yesterday.
Stevens, who lacks a commanding physical presence and wears an "Incredible Hulk" tie on key legislative days, has been known for his angry outbursts at colleagues over perceived professional slights. In 2005, after he lost a fight to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge for oil drilling, he threatened to tour the nation and campaign against every senator who opposed him.
But Stevens is a larger-than-life political figure in Alaska. Appointed to his current seat in December 1968, he has easily won every race since and has proudly funneled billions of federal dollars to his home state.
From 1997 through 2004, Stevens served as the chairman or ranking member of the powerful Appropriations Committee. From 2003 to 2006, he was president pro tempore of the Senate, putting him in the line of succession to become president.
Even after the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, Stevens retained power. He has been the ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where the chairman, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), is such a good friend that Stevens was given the honorific title of vice chairman. He also has retained the top GOP spot on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending.
Democrats and Republicans remained tight-lipped about the indictment yesterday, though some Democrats expressed regret for the senior lawmaker.
"It's a sad day for him, for us," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters at his weekly news conference. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared before cameras but declined to comment and walked away.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, said federal prosecutors would be very careful about bringing such a highly sensitive indictment, especially in the months before an election.
"You go over it and go over it and go over it, to make sure you got it right," he said. "It's more of making sure you've got it all right, and then, in the DOJ's case, make sure you've got all the appropriate sign-offs from above."
At a news conference in Washington, Acting Assistant Attorney General Matthew W. Friedrich said prosecutors closely followed internal protocols for bringing criminal charges against elected officials.
"We bring cases based on our evaluation of the facts and the law," he said. "We bring cases when they are ready to be charge, and that's what happened here."
Stevens will be allowed to surrender to authorities on his own terms, Justice Department officials said. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, but an arraignment date has not been set.
The investigation involving Ben Stevens is the subject of continuing scrutiny, but John Wolfe, a Seattle-based attorney for the younger Stevens, said yesterday that he was "not aware of any activity going on in Mr. Stevens's case right now."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.