A Dual Fight for Stevens
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Embattled Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska goes on trial tomorrow in a historic public corruption case, bucking conventional legal wisdom in the hope of winning acquittal in time to be reelected to a seventh full term.
The first sitting senator to face a federal trial in more than two decades, Stevens, an 84-year-old Republican icon of both the Senate and his home state, was indicted eight weeks ago on charges that he failed to disclose lavish gifts he received from executives of an oil services company. If convicted, Stevens could face prison time, his 40-year Senate career would meet an ignominious end, and Republicans would probably lose a normally reliable Senate seat.
While battling prosecutors in what is expected to be a month-long trial, Stevens also will be running an uphill reelection campaign from the same Washington courthouse -- 3,500 miles from Anchorage. He may have to debate his Democratic opponent well after midnight by teleconference and make arduous red-eye flights to attend weekend campaign events.
It's a risky strategy but perhaps the only one that could result in his reelection, analysts say.
"We have an Alaska Senate race that's about to be decided by 12 residents of the District of Columbia," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "If he's acquitted, he goes home, and it becomes more of a victory lap than a campaign."
Prosecutors have said their case is simple. In a 28-page indictment and other court filings, the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section alleges that Stevens repeatedly lied on Senate financial disclosure forms about gifts and $250,000 in home renovations he received from executives of the now-defunct oil services company Veco.
Prosecutors say Stevens never attempted to pay Bill Allen, Veco's chief executive, for the cost of the renovations or other gifts. Allen pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges in a long-running federal investigation of corruption in Alaska's government, and he has provided critical testimony that already has helped convict two Alaska state legislators.
In hearings and court filings, prosecutors allege that Veco, Allen or friends gave Stevens a Viking grill, a discounted Land Rover, a $29,000 bronze statue of a fish, a $2,700 vibrating massage chair, a $3,200 stained-glass window and a sled dog -- none of which the senator reported.
Those gifts were in addition to extensive renovations to Stevens's Girdwood, Alaska, home by Veco employees and contractors, who installed a wrap-around deck and raised the home on stilts to add a new floor, prosecutors allege. They say Stevens interacted with the workers, discussed the project with Allen and suggested improvements to the renovation plans.
In exchange, the government says, Stevens helped or promised to help Veco on various matters, including prodding officials to build a natural gas pipeline in Alaska and requesting that the World Bank get involved in a dispute between Veco and Pakistan over delays in a project. At the time, Stevens chaired two of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill, the Senate's Appropriations and Commerce panels.
Prosecutors have described those favors as Stevens's motive for lying on the disclosure forms. "He knows someone is going to look at that and say, 'Wait a second, he's getting stuff from Veco and Allen and he wrote a letter on their behalf,' " prosecutor Joseph Bottini said at a recent hearing.
But prosecutors stopped short of charging Stevens with corruption. By limiting the charges to failing to report gifts, some legal experts said, the prosecution can introduce Stevens's alleged favors as context and motive, not a required element of the crime.