By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Before his indictment on corruption charges, then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) rejected a plea deal that would have required that he plead guilty to a felony but would have resulted in no jail time, according to newly released court records.
The records revealed the first of two gambles made by Stevens in the case. If he had taken the deal, his chances of winning a seventh full term in the Senate would have been greatly diminished. The other risky bet: Stevens pressed for an early trial date in the hopes of clearing his name by Election Day.
Though Stevens was convicted in October, the expedited trial is now viewed as one of the underlying causes of a series of prosecutorial missteps that ultimately derailed the case.
Two weeks ago, a new team of Justice Department lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to toss out Stevens's conviction after they unearthed prosecutors' notes that contradicted testimony from a key government witness. Those notes -- or their contents -- should have been disclosed to defense attorneys.
The judge threw out the conviction and assigned an outside lawyer to investigate allegations that prosecutors may have violated court orders dealing with evidence and witnesses during and after the trial.
Last week, the judge ordered transcripts of private conversations, known as bench conferences, between him, prosecutors and defense attorneys to be made public. Most have been put on public docket at the D.C. federal courthouse.
In one of those conferences on July 31, the day Stevens was arraigned on seven counts of lying on financial disclosure forms to hide free home renovations and other gifts, the judge asked Stevens's attorney and prosecutors whether the senator had been offered a plea deal, the transcripts show.
Brendan Sullivan, Stevens's attorney, told the judge and prosecutors that "they did offer us a no-jail disposition," according to a transcript of the conference.
Later, the lawyer told the judge that the agreement would have required Stevens to plead guilty to a felony.
But "we turned them down," Brendan Sullivan said.
He told the judge that Stevens, who was one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, would reject any future plea deals.
At the same hearing, Stevens asked for a speedy trial. The judge started jury selection just two months later.
Justice Department officials and outside legal experts say the compressed pretrial timetable may have contributed to prosecutorial lapses. The judge chastised prosecutors several times during the trial for how they handled witnesses and evidence. After the trial, the judge held three prosecutors in contempt for not complying with a court order.