WASHINGTON -- A federal judge on Wednesday turned down Sen. Ted Stevens' request to move his corruption trial to Alaska, tying the 84-year-old Alaska Republican to a Washington, D.C., courtroom at the height of his re-election campaign 3,500 miles away.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan decided that the trial will remain in the nation's capital and it will continue on an accelerated schedule. The judge offered to take Fridays off during the trial so that Stevens could travel to Alaska to campaign on the weekend, but the senator's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, was lukewarm to the idea, especially if it means a slower path to a verdict.
Stevens asked for, and received, a speedy trial schedule so that he could go to court before the Nov. 4 election. Jury selection is set to begin Sept. 22 and the trial is scheduled to start two days later. It is expected to last four weeks.
"We want the earliest possible trial," his attorney said. "We want the verdict as far this side of Election Day as possible."
Stevens faces seven felony counts of knowingly taking home repairs and gifts worth more than $250,000 from the oil services company Veco Corp. and failing to report them on his annual Senate disclosure forms from 2001 through 2006. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each count.
Stevens was in Alaska campaigning for the Senate seat he has held since 1968 and didn't attend Wednesday's court hearing. On Tuesday, he faces six opponents in the Republican primary.
Stevens on Wednesday released a statement saying he asked his attorneys to request a venue change "because I wanted Alaskans to have a first-hand 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," Stevens said. "I welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that I am innocent of these changes."
His campaign spokesman, Aaron Saunders, said that a Washington trial has "little impact on this campaign moving forward." The campaign will "build upon our organization and support base" to "ensure this is a vibrant campaign," Saunders said.
Stevens' lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the trial should be moved because many of the witnesses are in Alaska, and that jurors should see Stevens' Girdwood home, where Veco employees, including former 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, not Washington, D.C.
"Forms were filed here? So what!" he said. "It's all about Alaska."
Brendan Sullivan also complained that federal investigators have been working on this case for several years, giving prosecutors ample opportunity to bring charges on a timetable that wouldn't have interfered with the election.
"They didn't have to bring this 28 days before a primary and 98 days before the election," he said.
But Judge Sullivan signaled early during Wednesday's hearing that he was disinclined to move the trial, in part because he had worked so hard to clear his own calendar to hear the Stevens case quickly.
"This court went to great lengths, I emphasize, great lengths, to rearrange its calendar," he said as he read his decision.
Also, prosecutors assured the judge that there would be no problem getting faraway witnesses to Washington. The trial is appropriate here, prosecutors said, since this is where they allege the crimes occurred.
"This is a proper venue for the crimes charged in the indictment," said Nicholas Marsh, one of the prosecutors with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section.
"It's true, a lot of this relates to Alaska," Marsh added, but quibbled with Brendan Sullivan's "so what!" characterization of the disclosure forms. "These forms are very important. They serve a very important public function."
'A HOUSE, GIFTS AND FORMS'
Judge Sullivan weighed several factors in his decision, such as where Stevens spends most of his time and where the witnesses are. But his biggest concern appeared to be ensuring that Stevens could continue to campaign even as his trial proceeded.
At one point, Stevens' lawyer appeared peeved by the potential effect on the election. He specifically mentioned a motion filed last week by prosecutors, who indicated they want to introduce evidence that will help bolster their case. The potential evidence doesn't include new charges, but the motion alleges some previously unknown information, including that Stevens accepted a $31,000 personal loan from an old friend as part of a lucrative Florida 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. He added 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 countered.
Federal prosecutors also had argued that holding the trial in Alaska while Stevens is campaigning for re-election had potential to taint the home-state jury pool. In addition, they were concerned about Stevens' statements about his innocence to the news media and at campaign events. They cited recent remarks in interviews and at campaign rallies, as well as a statement last year when he told reporters that he had "paid every bill that was given to us" connected with his home renovations. Those types of remarks also have the power to sway potential jurors, they argued.
Stevens' claim that it the trial would be disruptive to his campaign gave prosecutors "heartburn," Marsh said, especially since Stevens himself asked for a speedy trial during campaign season.
"He knew he was running for re-election," Marsh said.
Brendan Sullivan argued that there's nothing inappropriate about Stevens proclaiming his innocence on the campaign trail, although he also said he has cautioned his client to avoid any references to specifics of the case.
"So far, thank God, that's not a crime in America," to proclaim your innocence, Brendan Sullivan said. "If he slips into declaring himself innocent, I say great for him."
Judge Sullivan said he found the prosecution arguments more persuasive, and agreed that the potential jurors stood to be tainted by pre-trial publicity and media exposure. He also said he thought that the federal courthouse in Washington was better prepared to accommodate the intense media interest in the case.