WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for Sen. Ted Stevens asked a federal judge to move his trial to his home state, saying the "center of gravity" of the charges faced by the 84-year-old Republican rests "squarely in Alaska" and that it will be near-impossible for him to campaign if the trial isn't moved.
Stevens' lawyers filed a motion Monday afternoon asking for the trial to be moved from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage. Stevens pleaded not guilty last week to seven counts of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in home repairs and gifts that investigators say he received from Bill Allen, the former chief of oil services company Veco Corp.
His lawyers Brendan Sullivan and Robert Cary argue that because most witnesses are in Alaska -- and so is the home where the repairs in question were made -- the Sept. 24 trial should be there, not in Washington. They would like a jury to visit his home in Girdwood to see the value of the renovations for themselves, his lawyers wrote, and that "obviously would not be convenient for a Washington, D.C., jury."
They also argue it will be disruptive for Stevens to have the trial in Washington while he runs for re-election in Alaska. If it isn't moved, Stevens will have "a minimal opportunity to personally participate in the electoral process that will decide his professional future," they said.
"Unfortunately, no matter the outcome of this trial, this schedule alone may not be enough to ensure that Senator Stevens has the ability to compete meaningfully in the upcoming election," his lawyers wrote. "Senator Stevens must be able to campaign, albeit limitedly, during the trial. Were venue transferred to Alaska, Senator Stevens would have the opportunity to campaign in the evenings and on weekends during the trial."
Stevens took full advantage of the August congressional recess to begin campaigning in earnest for the Aug. 26 primary. In Anchorage on Monday, he proclaimed his innocence to supporters and said the trial would "vindicate" him. He also appeared with President Bush later in the day when the president stopped at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks on his way to the Olympic opening ceremonies in China.
Prosecutors have until Monday to file a response to the motion, the first filing in a fast-moving case with an aggressive timetable. U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan is expected to make a decision about the trial's location following an Aug. 20 hearing. Right now, the trial, which is on an accelerated schedule, is tentatively set for Sept. 24.
'SYMPATHETIC TO HIM'
The Justice Department has no comment until prosecutors file their motion, said spokeswoman Laura Sweeney. But they are likely to oppose Stevens' efforts to move the trial. In court last week, the lead prosecutor in the case, Brenda Morris, said she thought "venue change is inappropriate." She also said that the government has taken the location of witnesses into consideration in preparation for what is expected to be a three- to four-week trial.
Although many of the underlying allegations in his indictment revolve around his Alaska home in Girdwood, Stevens was charged in federal court in Washington. He faces seven counts of making false statements on the financial disclosure forms he is required to file each year with the secretary of the U.S. Senate, in Washington.
Some legal experts have pointed to the government decision to bring charges in Washington as a sign prosecutors are unable to prove the stronger bribery case that is outlined in the indictment.
The indictment alleges that Stevens took things of value from Allen and Veco even as the company and its executives asked him to help with federal contracts and other matters Stevens could sway. But a Justice Department spokesman was very clear last week when they announced the charges: There was no quid pro quo to make the case against Stevens a bribery case.
"If they have evidence this thing suggests, why didn't they indict bribery?" asked Nancy Luque, a Sacramento attorney who briefly represented Brent Wilkes, the defense contractor who was convicted of bribing former California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
"It suggests they wanted to prosecute in the District of Columbia on the false statement charges because they thought it would be easier to get a conviction here," added Frank Razzano, a defense attorney who used to prosecute cases for the Securities and Exchange Commission and teaches at the University of Maryland law school. "Maybe they didn't want to prosecute the case in Alaska because they were afraid the people up there would have been sympathetic to him."
But other defense attorneys say that what the government has to prove is fairly simple: Stevens got gifts, he had a duty to report them, and intentionally did not.
'WHAT THEY CAN ACTUALLY PROVE'
There's often a cycle to these types of cases, said Chuck La Bella, a San Diego lawyer and former federal prosecutor who was appointed by former Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate violations of federal campaign finance laws after the 1996 presidential election. What seems flimsy in an indictment begins to firm up in court, La Bella said.
"Things are going to come out that they never knew about Sen. Stevens," La Bella said. "Once the damning evidence becomes public, the house of cards begins to fall."
He also added that prosecutors "bring charges on what they can actually prove. There may be things out there that they didn't charge because it's a little squishy. Bribery cases are exceeding difficult to prove against a politician."
They also could be holding back because of the speech or debate clause of the Constitution, said Melanie Sloane, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who heads up the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Sloane said she thinks prosecutors didn't want to get entangled in a dispute over speech or debate, which puts documents related to any legislative activity off-limits to executive branch investigators. The Justice Department has gotten bogged down in speech or debate disputes about evidence in the bribery trial of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., Sloane said.
While some may dismiss the charges brought against Stevens as merely paperwork errors, Sloane does not.
"It is entirely unacceptable for members of Congress to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts for businesses that they're helping with their legislative power," she said. "There is actually no explanation that Mr. Stevens can give that is good enough about why it was okay for Bill Allen to give him $250,000 worth of gifts."
And there's often a reason why prosecutors seek charges that seem less severe than they should be, considering the underlying conduct, said Andy Lourie, who until recently was the chief of staff of the Justice Department's criminal division. Lourie, who now is in private practice, would not comment on the specifics of Stevens' case, but said prosecutors have many things to consider when they decide which charges to bring. Sometimes the statute of limitations has passed, or the evidence may not pass muster. In other cases, it may be that it is impossible to show a quid pro quo.
In general, when asked about the seriousness of such cases, he said "anytime a United States senator, a U.S. congressman or others are charged with intentionally hiding gifts, that's a very serious charge. Those gift rules are there for a reason. They're there to protect the integrity of our system."
Erika Bolstad reports on Alaska issues from McClatchy Newspapers' Washington bureau. Read her on our Alaska Politics blog: adn.com/alaskapolitics.