- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska will go to trial Sept. 24, giving the Senate’s longest-serving Republican a chance to clear his name before the general election.

Mr. Stevens, 84, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia to charges of lying about receiving more than $250,000 in gifts from an oil services company. He was indicted Tuesday.

His attorney, Brendan Sullivan, asked for a trial within three months.

He said the senator - who is facing re-election challenges within his own party and from Democrats - plans to file a motion to hold the trial in Alaska.

“I can understand why the senator would like to have this matter concluded before the election,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said in setting the tentative trial date.

The prosecutor didn’t object to Mr. Stevens’ request for a speedy trial but was reluctant to move the venue to Alaska.

“I think a venue change is inappropriate,” federal prosecutor Brenda Morris said.

Mr. Sullivan noted that most of the 40 or 50 potential witnesses in the case live in Alaska, but Ms. Morris said prosecutors have made plans to accommodate those witnesses.

Judge Sullivan said he would hold an Aug. 19 hearing to consider the change-of-venue request, unless he makes a decision before then based on written arguments from the prosecution and the defense.

Though a long shot, a change of venue to Alaska could be a huge advantage to Mr. Stevens, who was named “Alaskan of the Century” in 2000, allowing him to campaign as a fighter instead of an incumbent under indictment.

Some Republican lawmakers - such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee - have begun to distance themselves from Mr. Stevens in advance of November’s elections. Senate Democrats, who hold 49 votes and caucus with two independents, aim to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

Mr. Stevens, a senator for 40 years, faces challenges from former state lawmaker David Cuddy in his party and from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich in the Democratic Party, among others. Polls show Mr. Begich in the lead.

Mr. Stevens has been in involved in Alaskan politics since before it became the 49th state in 1959.

In those earlier years, he was Alaska’s top federal prosecutor before helping lobby for statehood. He later became a powerful U.S. senator who steered huge amounts of federal money to the state and worked to allow the government to take advantage of Alaska’s oil reserves.

It was Mr. Stevens’ ties to VECO, a now-defunct oil services company, that led to his indictment in a corruption investigation that began four years ago in Alaska.

Prosecutors say Mr. Stevens accepted more than $250,000 in home improvements and gifts from VECO owner Bill Allen.

The improvements to Mr. Stevens’ Girwood, Alaska, home, which he called “the chalet,” included a wraparound deck, a remodeled first floor and an expensive gas grill, according to the indictment.

In one case, prosecutors say, Mr. Stevens gave Allen $5,000 and a 1964 Ford Mustang in exchange for a new Land Rover. According to the indictment, the Mustang was worth less than half of the Land Rover, which was valued at more than $44,000.

Mr. Stevens is charged with failing to include those gifts on his Senate disclosure form, a violation of federal law.

Prosecutors say Mr. Stevens did favors for VECO, such as securing federal grants, although the senator is not charged with receiving gifts as part of a quid-pro-quo relationship, which is the linchpin of political corruption.

Mr. Stevens’ indictment is part of a wider political corruption probe in Alaska that has led to seven convictions, including that of Allen.

As part of his plea agreement, Allen agreed to cooperate with the FBI in exchange for leniency. As part of that help, investigators secretly recorded conversations between Allen and Mr. Stevens.

Those recordings are among the evidence prosecutors said in court on Thursday that they would give to Mr. Stevens’ attorneys next week.

Mr. Stevens did not speak during or after his court appearance. He has maintained his innocence and vowed to fight the charges.

He remains free on personal recognizance and was required to hand over his passport. He won’t need permission to leave the District to campaign in Alaska.

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