Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Senate’s longest serving Republican and a powerful force in government spending, was convicted Monday by a federal jury of lying on ethics reports in a verdict that jeopardizes his political future and personal freedom just a week before Election Day.
The 84-year-old 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 alleged was an effort to conceal $250,000 in home renovations and gifts the senator received from Alaska business executive Bill Allen and the VECO oil services company.
The trial cast light both on the power that Stevens wielded as the once-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.
Stevens expressed defiance shortly after leaving the courthouse in Washington, vowing to press on with 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.”
“I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have,” he said. “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.”
Stevens is locked in a tight re-election battle with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. A loss for Stevens would help Democrats in their effort to control 60 seats in the 100-seat chamber, enough to attain a filibuster-proof majority.
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. And 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 top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
Stevens became a symbol of excessive government spending when he defended a pet project of his 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 came to his defense, testifying at the trial.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said sentencing would take place within the next 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. They have asked to go home and they are en route home,” 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.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she is confident that “Senator Stevens will do what’s right for the people of Alaska.”
“The verdict shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company that was allowed to control too much of our state. … As governor of the state of Alaska, I will carefully monitor this situation and take any appropriate action as needed,” said Mrs. Palin, who is the Republican vice-presidential nominee. “In the meantime, I ask the people of Alaska to join me in respecting the workings of our judicial system.”
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 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 allegations. 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.
The Stevens trial saw a few bumps since it began Sept. 22.
Earlier Monday, jurors discovered what they said was a mistake in the indictment, identifying a potential avenue of appeal for Stevens.
The Justice Department indictment says that in 2001 Stevens checked “no” on a financial disclosure form that asked whether he received any gifts in the previous year.
Jurors sent a note to Judge Sullivan saying they checked the 2001 financial disclosure form and found Stevens checked “yes” on the question asking whether he received gifts.
A quick check by the judge and attorneys found the jurors were right. “This jury is very perceptive,” Judge Sullivan said. “Theyre not missing anything.”
The gifts mentioned on the 2001 form were not the same as the home renovation and made no mention of Allen or his company. The form listed a commemorative gold coin Stevens received from the U.S. Special Olympics, which he has supported through his work as a senator.
Justice Department attorney Brenda Morris said she thought the indictments incorrect statement about the 2001 form was a typographical error.
Defense attorneys said it showed the weakness of the governments case.
Judge Sullivan dismissed the idea the mistake was a typographical error. “Presumably somebody reads these indictments before they return them,” he said.
He instructed the jury that it should not consider the indictment to be evidence against Stevens.
The gaffe was another embarrassing mistake for Justice Department attorneys, whom the judge previously reprimanded for withholding evidence that supported Stevens defense case.
Earlier this month, the judge berated prosecuting attorneys after evidence arose that prosecutors withheld an FBI investigator’s report saying Stevens would have paid his home renovation bills if he had known about them. The judge allowed the trial to proceed, rejecting defense attorney’s request for dismissal.
The following week, the judge threw out key evidence that prosecutors presented to show the senator lied on financial disclosure forms. The judge ruled the government’s case that Stevens improperly accepted $250,000 in free home renovations, then failed to disclose them as required by law, was based partly on false and concealed evidence.
Jury deliberations, which began Wednesday, were not without drama either.
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. Judge 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.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.