- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

UPDATE 1:

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain Tuesday called for Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to resign his seat a day after the seven-term lawmaker was convicted by a federal jury of trying to conceal tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and services he received from friends and supporters.

“It is now clear that Sen. Stevens has broken his trust with the people and that he should now step down,” Mr. McCain said in a statement released by his campaign Tuesday morning.

“I hope my colleagues in the Senate will be spurred by these events to redouble their efforts to end this kind of corruption once and for all,” he said.

Stevens, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican and a powerful force in government spending, has vowed to push ahead with his re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, even as he appeals the verdict.

A loss by Stevens would give Democrats a major boost in their effort to control 60 seats in the 100-seat chamber, enough to attain a filibuster-proof majority.

“I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have,” said Stevens, 84. “I am innocent. This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial.

“I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights. I remain a candidate for the United States Senate. I will come home on Wednesday and ask for your vote.”

Mr. McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was more circumspect on hearing of Stevens’s conviction.

Mrs. Palin said she late Monday she was confident that “Senator Stevens will do what’s right for the people of Alaska.”

“As governor of the state of Alaska, I will carefully monitor this situation and take any appropriate action as needed. In the meantime, I ask the people of Alaska to join me in respecting the workings of our judicial system,” she added.

Mr. McCain and Stevens have been Republican Senate colleagues since 1987, but the Arizona Republican has been a crusader against federal spending excesses and congressional earmarks that the Alaska Republican has long championed.

The trial cast light both on the power that Stevens wielded as the one-time chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the influence-peddling tactics that monied interests use to gain favor with lawmakers who control government’s purse strings.

Mr. McCain in his statement said the jury’s verdict was “a sign of the corruption and insider-dealing that have become so pervasive in our nation’s capital.”

Stevens sat emotionless as jurors returned guilty verdicts on seven counts of filing false Senate financial disclosure forms between 2000 and 2006 in what prosecutors said was an effort to conceal $250,000 in home renovations and gifts that the senator received from Alaska business executive Bill Allen and the VECO oil services company.

He expressed defiance shortly after leaving the courthouse in Washington, vowing to press on with his campaign to win re-election to the Senate on Nov. 4 and to overturn a verdict he said was influenced by “repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct.”

Even if Stevens wins re-election, his future is clouded.

Each charge carries a maximum of five years in prison, though sentencing guidelines call for a less harsh penalty.

If the verdict survives appeal, he could be expelled from the Senate if two-thirds of his colleagues vote to do so.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican rules require him to relinquish his position as the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee.

Stevens became a symbol of excessive government spending when he defended a pet project that came to be known as the “Bridge to Nowhere.” At the same time, his half-century in government, which predates Alaska’s statehood, endeared him to many of Washington’s most respected figures. Luminaries such as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, testified on his behalf at the trial.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said Stevens would be sentenced within 90 days.

Minutes after the verdict was read, Stevens left hurriedly with his attorneys in a van as a swarm of reporters and camera crews surrounded him. The jurors left the court without comment.

“The jurors have unanimously told me that no one has any desire to speak to any member of the media,” the judge announced in the courtroom.

Matthew W. Friedrich, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, thanked prosecutors during a press conference in front of the court. “This has been a long and hard-fought trial,” he said.

During the trial, defense attorneys tried to portray Stevens as being too busy in Washington to pay close attention to the renovation of his cabin in Girdwood, Alaska, which his wife, Catherine, oversaw. They also said their client assumed that the $160,000 they paid to another contractor covered everything.

The prosecution relied on testimony by several VECO workers who, starting in 2000, labored for months to transform a modest A-frame cabin into a two-story home with wraparound decks, new electrical and plumbing systems, a sauna and a master-bedroom balcony.

Prosecutors called as their star witness Allen, VECO’s former chief executive who has pleaded guilty to bribery in a corruption investigation resulting in convictions of several Alaskan legislators.

“This company, the evidence showed, was not a charity,” Mr. Friedrich said at Monday’s press conference, referring to VECO Corp.

Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying the charges against him. He said his wife paid every bill they received.

Living in Washington, thousands of miles away, made it impossible to monitor the project every day, he said. Stevens relied on Allen to oversee the renovations, he said, and his friend deceived him by not forwarding all the bills.

Mrs. Stevens testified that she had written checks, totaling about $160,000, to pay for the renovations.

Jury deliberations, which began Wednesday, were not without drama.

Judge Sullivan on Sunday dismissed a female juror from the trial because she had not been in contact with the court since Friday. The juror flew to California after the death of her father.

Judge Sullivan said the court had not heard from her since she left town, and he Sullivan appointed an alternate juror to join the deliberations Monday morning.

The incident was the second time that problems arose with the jury. On Thursday, 11 of the jurors voted to expel a woman listed by the court as Juror No. 9. The foreman accused her of “violent outbursts” and being uncooperative. Judge Sullivan declined to dismiss the woman but called the jurors back to court to counsel them on the importance of cooperating.