By Carrie Johnson and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Alaska's Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history, was indicted yesterday on seven charges of making false statements about more than $250,000 that corporate executives doled out to overhaul his Anchorage area house.
A federal grand jury in the District accused Stevens of concealing on financial disclosure statements lucrative gifts from the now-defunct oil company Veco and its top executives, including a Viking gas grill, a tool cabinet and a wraparound deck. At one point, Veco employees and contractors jacked up the senator's mountainside house on stilts and added a new first floor, with two bedrooms and a bathroom, the indictment says.
The senator, who once oversaw more than $900 billion in federal spending each year as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he has "temporarily relinquished" his senior posts on several committees, in accordance with Senate rules, while he focuses on the legal battle ahead.
Stevens, 84, the first sitting U.S. senator to face criminal charges in 15 years, adamantly denied the allegations in a statement yesterday afternoon.
"I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator," said Stevens, whose more than five decades of public service date to the missions he flew for the Army Air Corps during World War II. "The impact of these charges on my family disturbs me greatly. I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that."
He is the highest-profile lawmaker to be indicted in an Alaska political corruption investigation that began in 2004 and has resulted in seven convictions. Before the federal probe started, emboldened legislators in Juneau had worn baseball caps with the initials "CBC," which stood for "Corrupt Bastards Club."
Interest by federal officials, including the FBI and the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, became public in 2006, when law enforcement agents executed search warrants at the offices of six state legislators, including Stevens's son, Ben Stevens, a former state Senate president. The following year, agents arrived with warrants to search Ted Stevens's house in Girdwood, Alaska, which he calls "the chalet."
Ted Stevens is among more than a dozen current and former members of Congress who have come under federal investigation in recent years because of their connections to lobbyists and corporate interests. His indictment further imperils Senate Republicans, who hold 49 seats now but face the possibility of losing at least half a dozen in the November elections.
Stevens's spokesman said yesterday that the senator will continue to seek another term. He is locked in a tight reelection battle with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D), who in recent polls had edged slightly ahead. Stevens's main opponent in the Aug. 26 Republican primary is a little-known businessman.
Elements of the Veco investigation also have ensnared Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a former chairman of the House transportation committee who, since taking office in 1973, has worked with Stevens to bring federal money to Alaska. Young remains under government scrutiny but has not been charged.
Former Veco chief executive Bill J. Allen, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and bribing public officials, figured prominently in yesterday's indictment. In one instance, court papers said, he agreed to exchange a new 1999 Land Rover for a much less valuable 1964 Ford Mustang owned by the lawmaker after Stevens expressed interest in finding a new vehicle for his daughter.
In return, Allen and other unnamed Veco officials for years sought Stevens's help with partnerships in Pakistan and Russia, with grants from the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, and with a variety of other issues, prosecutors said. The assistance was sometimes provided by Stevens or staff members, they said, but at times no help was offered.
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.