By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008 5:40 PM
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) pleaded not guilty this afternoon to charges of making false statements about more than $250,000 in renovations to his Anchorage-area home and other gifts he received from executives of an oil services company.
At Stevens's arraignment in U.S. District Court, the senator's attorneys and prosecutors agreed they could start a trial by late September, just a month before the 84-year-old senator could face a tough battle in the November election. After a 30-minute recess to consider Stevens's request, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan set a Sept. 24 trial date.
Stevens's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, initially asked Sullivan to schedule the trial for October so that Stevens can "clear his name" before the general election on Nov. 4. Brendan Sullivan also asked to submit legal briefs urging the judge to transfer the trial to Alaska.
"This is not a complex case, and it should move quickly," Stevens's attorney said, adding that "this is the first time in my life I have asked for a speedy trial."
Brenda K. Morris, a prosecutor for the Justice Department, said her team could start a trial by Sept. 22. It would take about three weeks to present the government's case, she said, adding that she has not extended any plea deals to Stevens.
Judge Sullivan indicated he was not inclined to grant the request to move the trial to Alaska, where Stevens's attorney said 90 percent of the witnesses reside.
Wearing a gray jacket and a blue tie, Stevens entered the court this afternoon amid a throng of reporters and declined to answer questions. He stood briefly at the beginning of the arraignment as his lawyer answered "not guilty" when Stevens was asked for a plea to the seven charges in the indictment.
Stevens sat stoically at the defense table in the crowded courtroom and listened as Brendan Sullivan argued for a speedy trial.
The senator quietly entered the courthouse yesterday to complete paperwork, avoiding reporters and television cameramen stationed outside, officials said.
Stevens was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven counts of concealing information on financial disclosure forms about the lucrative gifts from corporate executives from a now-defunct oil services company, Veco.
The longest serving Republican in the Senate, Stevens is accused of receiving items that include a Viking gas grill, a wrap-around deck and a new Land Rover, according to the 28-page indictment filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Stevens, who faces a five-year maximum prison term on each of the seven counts in the indictment, once oversaw $900 billion in federal spending annually as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. As president pro tempore of the Senate from 2003 through 2006, he was in line of succession to become president. Stevens has temporarily relinquished his senior posts on several committees.
Stevens is the highest-profile lawmaker to be indicted in an Alaska political corruption investigation that began in 2004 and has resulted in seven convictions. The investigation of Stevens became public in 2006, when authorities executed search warrants at the offices of six state legislators, including Stevens's son, Ben Stevens, a former state Senate president.
Last year, the federal agents searched Ted Stevens's home in Girdwood, Alaska, which he affectionately called the "chalet," according to the indictment. The papers alleged that Veco employees and contractors jacked up the senator's mountainside house on stilts and added a new floor.
Former Veco chief executive Bill J. Allen, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and bribing public officials, figured prominently in the indictment. In 1999, Allen transferred a new Land Rover worth $44,000 to Stevens in exchange for the senator's 1964 Ford Mustang and $5,000 in cash, according to the indictment.
In exchange for the gifts, Allen and other unnamed Veco officials sought the senator'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, the indictment said.
The indictment, brought by the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, charged Stevens with violations of the Ethics in Government Act.
The 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 ignored those reporting requirements from 1999 through 2006, the indictment alleged.
Stevens is a larger-than-life figure in Alaska, where his name graces the Anchorage International Airport and he is revered for bringing the state billions of dollars in federal aid. Since 2006, the state has received more than $9 billion from Washington, twice as much as a decade earlier.