By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, one of Congress's most powerful Republicans, was convicted yesterday of lying on financial disclosure forms to conceal his receipt of gifts and expensive renovations to his house, just eight days before he faces voters in a tight reelection contest.
The 84-year-old lawmaker, the first sitting U.S. senator to go on trial in more than two decades, sat quietly as a jury foreman in federal court read the verdict after less than a day of deliberations: guilty on seven felony counts, each with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The senator, who probably will face a less severe penalty under federal sentencing guidelines, left the courtroom without answering reporters' questions.
In a statement issued by his office, Stevens maintained his innocence, accused Justice Department lawyers of "repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct" and vowed to fight for reelection to a seventh full term.
"This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial," he said. "I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights."
Indicted in July, Stevens requested an expedited trial to clear his name before Election Day. Despite the guilty verdict, he will remain on the ballot and is engaged in a tight race against Anchorage's Democratic mayor, Mark Begich.
If he can pull off a victory, Stevens could cling to his seat in the Senate for months, if not longer, while he appeals the verdict. Tradition allows him to exhaust his appeals before the ethics committee will begin expulsion hearings, according to the Senate Historical Office. It takes 67 votes to expel a senator.
Known as "Uncle Ted" in Alaska, Stevens has been a major figure in his state for more than four decades and has brought home billions of dollars in federal aid during his career. Political handicappers refused to write him off but said his chances of reelection were greatly diminished by yesterday's outcome.
"In another state, he would be toast," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "In Alaska, you gotta make him a significant underdog."
It is not clear what role the conviction will play in contests waged by other embattled Senate Republicans who are trying to hold on to their seats. Within hours of the verdict, Democrats were sending out news releases seeking to link their opponents to Stevens's trouble.
"It's a horrible year for Republicans, in a horrific fall, and this is yet another horrific event," Cook said. "This throws them off message; it puts them back on the defensive again. It makes it harder to separate themselves from the party."
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP's vice presidential candidate, has declined to endorse Stevens and issued a statement last night that said: "This is a sad day for Alaska and for Senator Stevens and his family."
"I'm confident Senator Stevens will do what's right for the people of Alaska," she added, without elaborating.
Stevens's attorneys signaled that they will file court papers seeking to overturn the verdict, and U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan did not set a sentencing date. He allowed Stevens to remain free on personal bond.
Prosecutors declined to comment as they left the courtroom, but Matthew W. Friedrich, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division, spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse, saying: "This has been a long, hard-fought battle."
"This investigation continues, as does our commitment to holding elected officials accountable when they violate our laws," he added, without taking questions.
The verdict came just hours after jurors had re-started their deliberations at 9:30 a.m. yesterday, when one juror whose father died was replaced by an alternate.
By 3:15 p.m., the D.C. panel of eight women and four men sent the judge a note informing him that they had a reached a verdict.
Prosecutors with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section alleged throughout the trial that Stevens was a miser who approached a close friend to help him remodel his house in Girdwood, Alaska. That friend, Bill Allen, chief executive of the now-defunct oil services company Veco, testified that his company financed extensive renovations to the house from 2000 through 2002.
Veco workers testified in great detail that they helped jack up the rustic cabin on stilts to transform it, adding a new first floor, a garage and two wraparound decks. In extensive e-mail traffic during that period, Stevens was kept abreast of the work by a neighbor, who lauded the work of Allen and two Veco employees.
Stevens contended that Veco played no role in the renovations, that Allen was only providing workers and that he had been paying the firm's moonlighting employees. He and his wife, Catherine, testified that they thought a residential contractor had been in charge of the remodeling work. They paid that firm about $132,000 in 2000 and 2001 and paid other workers about $30,000.
Stevens's attorneys argued that the couple believed they had paid fair market value for all of the work. They attacked the credibility of Allen, who previously pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in a wide-ranging investigation of corruption in Alaska politics. Stevens's attorneys pounded prosecutors for withholding evidence and allowing a witness to quietly return to Alaska.
The judge chastised prosecutors several times for mishandling documents and struck some testimony and records because Justice Department lawyers did not turn over information to the defense.
Stevens also was accused of accepting other gifts, including a sled dog and a $2,700 massage chair. Prosecutors said Stevens received the dog from a friend who bought it from a nonprofit at a 2003 auction for $1,000. Stevens reported the value of the dog, Kiely, as $250 -- the price he paid for another puppy -- and said it had been given to him by the nonprofit, not his friend.
"He worked so hard to hide a dog's true value," said prosecutor Brenda Morris, who added that Stevens's other alleged misdeeds were easy to believe if he went to "those lengths for a dog, to not provide the truth when he knew full well what the truth was."
"The little things prove the big things," Morris said in closing arguments.
In the case of the chair, a friend testified that he gave the Brookstone lounger to Stevens as a gift. But the senator sent him an e-mail at the time saying the chair was just a loan. Stevens repeated that on the witness stand, though the chair has been in his basement for seven years.
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.