WASHINGTON -- A jury in Washington, D.C., will determine whether Sen. Ted Stevens lied on financial disclosure forms about gifts and home renovations he allegedly accepted from an oil services company and its owner.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan decided today that the trial will stay in the nation's capital and continue on its accelerated schedule. The judge offered to take Fridays off during the trial so that Stevens could travel to Alaska to campaign on the weekends, but Stevens lawyer Brendan Sullivan was lukewarm to the idea, especially if it meant a slower path to a verdict.
Stevens asked for - and received - a speedy trial schedule so he could go to court before the Nov. 4 election. Jury selection is set to begin Sept. 22, and the trial will start two days later.
"We want the earliest possible trial," his attorney said. "We want the verdict as far this side of Election Day as possible."
The 84-year-old Alaska Republican faces seven felony counts of knowingly taking home repairs and gifts worth more than $250,000 from the Veco Corp. and failing to report them on his annual Senate disclosure forms from 2001 through 2006.
Stevens didn't attend today's court hearing so he could continue campaigning in Alaska for the Senate seat he has held since 1968.
His office issued the following statement after the ruling:
"I urged my attorneys to request a venue change because I wanted Alaskans to have a firsthand opportunity to learn the facts of this matter. I understand the court's decision today and continue to have every faith in the fairness of the American judicial system and the court's commitment to conduct a speedy trial. I welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that I am innocent of these changes."
Tuesday, he'll face six opponents in a Republican primary in which he is expected to prevail. But Stevens faces a more difficult general election, when he's expected to face Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democratic challenger who has pulled ahead in some polls.
Stevens' lawyers argued unsuccessfully that many of the witnesses are in Alaska and that jurors should see Stevens' Girdwood home, where Veco employees, including chief executive officer Bill Allen, oversaw renovations in 2000 that doubled its size. They also argued that it would be disruptive for Stevens to have the trial in Washington while he runs for re-election in Alaska.
His lawyer even held up a map of the U.S., hoping to illustrate the 3,500-mile distance. The charges in the case are about events that happened in Alaska, Brendan Sullivan argued.
"Forms were filed here? So what," he said. "It's all about Alaska."
He also complained that prosecutors have been working on this case for some time and had ample opportunity to bring charges earlier.
"They didn't have to bring this 28 days days before a primary and 98 days before the election," he said.
But prosecutors assured Judge Sullivan that there would be no problem getting faraway witnesses to Washington, and the judge signaled early on he was disinclined to move the trial to Alaska.
"It's true, a lot of this relates to Alaska," said Nicholas Marsh of the U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. But he added, "these forms are very important. They serve a very important public function."
Federal prosecutors also countered that holding the trial in a place where Stevens is campaigning for re-election could taint the home-state jury pool. They also argued that it was just as easy to hear the case in Washington.
At one point, Stevens' lawyer appeared peeved by the contents of one of the motions filed last week by prosecutors, who want to introduce evidence that will help bolster their case. The potential evidence doesn't include new charges, but it alleges some previously unknown information, including that Stevens accepted a $31,000 personal loan from an old friend as part of a lucrative real estate deal, then failed to report it on his disclosure forms.
There was no need to "publicize to the world" such information "during the election," Brendan Sullivan said, adding that he thought the case was about "a house, gifts and forms."
"I think it's about some forms and some statements made in the District of Columbia," the judge said.