- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Opening arguments in the trial of Sen. Ted Stevens, who is charged with falsely filling out financial disclosure forms, have been pushed back to Thursday so that jury selection can be completed.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan originally scheduled opening arguments to begin Wednesday morning as part of an accelerated trial schedule that Mr. Stevens of Alaska had requested after he was indicted in July. The Senate’s longest-serving Republican asked for a speedy trial so that he has the chance to clear his name before he seeks re-election Nov. 4.

Mr. Stevens, 84, is charged with failing to include on his Senate disclosure forms more than $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from an oil services company that has been at the center of a sweeping corruption scandal in Alaska.

The outcome of the trial may determine Mr. Stevens’ political future, but his lawyers said that’s not the only thing weighing on his mind.

The judge on Tuesday granted a request from Mr. Stevens’ that he be allowed to leave the courtroom from time to time so that he can tend to Senate business. Mr. Stevens’ lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, said the request comes as Congress grapples with the crisis in the U.S. financial markets and considers a $700 billion bailout proposed by the Bush administration.

“There’s only one thing more important in his life than this trial, and that’s doing his duty as a senator, particularly in this time of national crisis,” Mr. Sullivan said of his client.

Judge Sullivan said he would tell jurors that Mr. Stevens is leaving the courtroom but would not tell them why. Prosecutors worried that revealing the reasons for Mr. Stevens’ potential absences would be an unfair way to make him look good to the jury.

On Tuesday, 29 potential jurors were chosen, while 16 others were excused. A pool of about three dozen potential jurors is needed to make up a panel of 12 jurors and several alternates because prosecutors and defense attorneys are allowed to dismiss a total of 20 people from the pool.

Among those dismissed Tuesday was a woman who said she couldn’t judge Mr. Stevens because she is a Christian Scientist and a man who said he works for a blog and is already convinced Mr. Stevens is guilty.

Those chosen to remain in the pool encompass a wide range of ages and professions: from a college student taking a semester off to a corporate lawyer who once attended a meeting convened by Mr. Stevens, although the man said he never really got to know the senator.

Judge Sullivan said he is confident that jury selection will be completed by Wednesday afternoon. Opening arguments Thursday would mark the beginning of a highly anticipated trial that is expected to last several weeks.

At the core of the case is a defunct oil services company and its founder, Bill Allen.

Allen, 71, has pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in a corruption probe that has produced six other convictions. His company, VECO, was once the largest employer in Alaska, but was sold for hundreds of millions in 2007 to a Colorado-based company called CH2M Hill.

Prosecutors say Allen paid for home improvements on Mr. Stevens’ Girwood home, which he called “the chalet.” Prosecutors will try to prove Mr. Stevens did favors for VECO, such as securing federal grants. But they have stopped short of charging him with bribery, which is a typical corruption charge and more serious than the charges Mr. Stevens faces.

Defense attorneys are expected to attack Allen’s reliability and credibility as a witness, including focusing on a 2001 motorcycle crash that left Allen with brain damage.

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