WASHINGTON - Sen. Ted Stevens will have the opportunity to clear his name in a federal court before the Nov. 4 election, but a judge seemed unlikely to move the case to his home state where jurors might be more sympathetic to the 84-year-old political titan.
The Alaska Republican made his initial appearanceThursday afternoon in federal District Court in Washington. He pleaded not guilty to seven counts of failing to disclose gifts investigators say he received from Bill Allen, the former chief of the oil services company Veco.
The 84-year-old lawmaker, a former U.S. Attorney, prosecuted wrongdoers in Alaska in the 1950s and has filed briefs with the Supreme Court. But Thursday's court appearance was his first as a defendant in a criminal case.
Stevens isn't trying to "ask for any special favors because he's a senator and served 40 years in the Senate," said his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan. But, "he'd like to clear his name before the election. This is not a complex case. It should be one that moves quickly."
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan set a tentative trial date of Sept. 24
"The reason for your request is not an insignificant one," the judge said. "I can appreciate why the senator would like to have this matter commence and concluded before the election."
Stevens' attorney told the judge it was the first time in his career that he recalled asking for a criminal trial to be moved at such a fast clip. On his way into the courthouse Thursday afternoon, Stevens waved to the television cameras lining Pennsylvania Avenue, within walking distance of the Capitol. He waited quietly for the proceedings to begin and was greeted politely by the judge, who welcomed him to the courtroom by saying "Good afternoon, senator."
Stevens said little during the hearing, but followed it closely. When it came time to enter his plea, his lawyer did it for him. After the first segment of the hearing, Stevens left the hearing room with his arms around his wife, Catherine, and one of his daughters, Beth. When it concluded, Stevens and his family and lawyers took the elevator down to a side exit, where he was whisked away in a black Cadillac.
Stevens' office issued a statement at the end of the day with the senator reiterating his innocence.
"I am humbled by all the outpouring of support, expressions of friendship, and offers of prayers," the statement said. "This process has lasted for more than a year, causing great distress to my family and confusing the Alaskans who have put their trust in me for more than 40 years.
"When all the facts come out at the trial, Alaskans will know that I continue to be a dedicated public servant and that I am working hard for them every day."
NEEDED: 500GB HARD DRIVE
Stevens is charged with making false statements about more than $250,000 worth of goods and services that he allegedly received from Veco Corp., the now-defunct Anchorage-based oil services and construction company, and from its chairman, Allen. The senator is the highest-profile politician to be caught in the four-year-old federal corruption probe, which has led to the conviction of three state lawmakers, a high-level official in Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration, two Veco officials and a lobbyist. Two other state legislators are awaiting trial.
Prosecutors said they could be prepared to bring Stevens' case to trial at the end of September. Brenda Morris, the lead Justice Department prosecutor on the case, also told the judge they could begin handing over discovery materials in the case as soon as Stevens' attorney gave them a 500-gigabyte computer hard drive.
Morris said the evidence they will share includes video and audio recordings and "consensual monitoring," which is when one of the parties to a conversation has agreed to its recording but the other person is unaware.
The need for such a large computer hard drive suggests that voluminous amounts of recorded evidence will play a part in this trial, much as it has in other corruption cases brought in Alaska.
It's not clear whether prosecutors will use recorded conversations between Stevens and Allen in court, but Allen's cooperation and that of the No. 2 at Veco, Richard Smith, in the case has been instrumental in other convictions. So have the surveillance videos and conversations recorded by the FBI.
The two pleaded guilty in May 2007 to making more than $400,000 in corrupt payments to public officials from Alaska. Allen agreed to cooperate with investigators in return for leniency in his own sentencing.
"It's generally understood up here that both Allen and Smith were engaged in a sting operation for approximately six months after they agreed to cooperate," with federal investigators, said Doug Pope, who represented one of the lobbyists who pleaded guilty, Bill Bobrick. He also represents former state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, who is awaiting trial.
"A whole lot of telephone calls were recorded when they were talking to public officials," Pope said. "I've listened to every tape they've produced, and some of which involve people who are involved in the Stevens case. My take on it is that Allen and Smith were trying to set people up."
"ONLY THING THAT CONVICTED VIC"
John Henry Brown, a lawyer for Vic Kohring, a former state representative, said that jurors approached him after his client's trial and said that video evidence was what convinced the jury to find him guilty.
"One of the jurors contacted us, and told us the only thing that convicted Vic was the last tape...(when) Vic said, offhandedly to Bill (Allen), 'I won't vote on that if you don't want me to.' That was really the only thing that convicted Vic," Brown said.
Brown also said that it could help Stevens to move the trial venue from Washington D.C. to Anchorage, even though Judge Sullivan seemed disinclined to do so.
"I'm sure the (prosecutors) want to keep it in D.C. because everyone in Alaska loves Uncle Ted," Brown said.
The judge set a hearing on Stevens' change-of-venue motion for Aug. 19, but questioned Stevens' lawyer about why Stevens would push for such a motion when all parties had worked hard to find a trial date in Washington, D.C., that allowed the case to be heard before the election.
Brendan Sullivan said that they thought about 90 percent of the witnesses in the case would be from Alaska and that it would make it easier. If possible, they would like the judge to come to Alaska, Stevens' lawyer said.
They're prepared to work around the geographic challenges, Morris said.
Stevens wasn't required to post bond, but he does have to surrender his passport and get permission from the court if his duties as senator require him to leave the country. If convicted, Stevens could face an unspecified fine and as much as five years in prison on each of the seven counts.
Most of the alleged gifts to Stevens from 1999 to 2006 came during a renovation that doubled the size of a house he owns with his wife, Catherine, in Girdwood. The company's employees and contractors performed architectural design services, put the house on stilts and installed a new three-bedroom first floor, a finished basement, a garage, a Viking gas range and a wraparound deck, according to the indictment.
While Stevens paid a construction firm for its work, he never reimbursed Veco or its contractors, even while staying involved in the progress of the work, the indictment said. Stevens also is accused of trading his vintage Ford Mustang and $5,000 to Allen in the spring of 1999 for a new Land Rover Discovery worth about $44,000, a car he told Allen he wanted for one of his daughters. Stevens' Mustang was worth about $20,000 at the time, according to the indictment.
Meanwhile, as Stevens then served as the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Allen and VECO sought his help with international projects, grants from the National Science Foundation and funding for a natural gas pipeline on Alaska's North Slope, the grand jury charged in its indictment.