WASHINGTON -- All the bluster about "dilatory tactics" aside, it looks as though Sen. Ted Stevens will go to trial on corruption charges in two weeks, as scheduled and in the midst of his re-election bid.
Lawyers for the Alaska Republican tried but failed Wednesday to have the case thrown out on grounds it is unconstitutional and that some counts in the indictment were outside the statute of limitations. Stevens, 84, faces seven felony counts alleging he knowingly took home repairs and gifts worth more than $250,000 from the oil services company Veco Corp. and failed to report them on his annual U.S. Senate disclosure forms.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled against most of the motions filed by Stevens' lawyers, who earlier this week had hinted that a spat with prosecutors about their sluggish speed in turning over potential evidence threatened to slow the fast-moving trial schedule. Stevens asked for the expedited schedule so his trial could wrap up before the Nov. 4 election, when he faces Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. Stevens did not attend Wednesday's hearing.
"You still want an early trial?" Sullivan asked one of Stevens' lawyers, Alex Romain.
"We absolutely want to go to trail September 22," Romain said.
Sullivan also denied a motion that would have stricken language in the indictment that suggests Stevens accepted gifts and renovations from the now-defunct Veco and its CEO Bill Allen in exchange for legislative favors for the Alaska-based oil services company.
One of Stevens' other attorneys, Robert Cary, argued that prosecutors were trying to "stink up the courtroom" with allegations of bribery when there is no evidence of a quid pro quo. In fact, Stevens was just doing his job by being responsive to an Alaska-based company that employed many state residents, Cary argued.
"There's no great mystery or dispute that Senator Stevens listens to his constituents and he tries to help them," Cary said
Prosecutors countered that the allegations at issue in the indictment are essential to prove their case, which hinges on charges that Stevens lied on his disclosure forms. It helps prove Stevens had a motive to hide information on the forms, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Bottini, and they will work to prove the senator knew that if he put the gifts on his disclosure form, he would face consequences.
"He knows someone is going to look at that and say, 'wait a second, he's getting stuff from Veco and Allen and he wrote a letter on their behalf.' Someone's going to look at that and go, 'Ah-ha!'" Bottini said.
The judge did say, however, that he would consider allowing the defense to suggest "curative language" to jurors to make sure they understand that they are considering a case about lying on forms, not bribery.
Sullivan also is expected to issue additional rulings on two key issues leading up to the trial, which begins Sept. 24 after two days of jury selection. They include determining whether evidence in the case violates constitutional separations that keep lawmakers from being prosecuted for their legislative actions in the halls of Congress.
Stevens' lawyers have expressed concerns that some of the evidence prosecutors presented to the grand jury that issued the indictment may have included such material, which is protected by what's known as the speech or debate clause of the Constitution. A number of current and former top-level Stevens staffers testified in front of the grand jury, his lawyers said Wednesday. Sullivan said he would review some of that grand jury testimony to determine whether it violated the speech or debate clause.
Sullivan also will rule later on whether prosecutors can introduce a wide array of other evidence to boost their case, including showing that Stevens hid a $31,000 loan from a friend and then parlayed it into $129,250 in real estate gains.
They also hope to include evidence that Stevens asked a lobbyist to ask Allen for a job in Phoenix for one of his three sons and that he conducted an unusual vehicle swap to obtain a new Jeep Cherokee for his daughter Lily in 2005.
Other disputes over evidence will be determined at trial, including whether to allow the testimony of several potential prosecution witnesses with criminal backgrounds. The judge also will address at trial whether Allen is mentally fit to testify, a question raised by Stevens' lawyers, who asked the government for Allen's medical records. "One quarter" of his brain is dead, Stevens' lawyers said.
But prosecutors corrected him. Allen was referring to an area of his brain the size of a quarter, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Sullivan, who prosecuted two previous corruption trials where Allen's testimony helped lead to convictions.
"If we really thought a quarter of his brain is dead, we would not put him on the stand," Sullivan said.
Allen's speech has been impaired since a 2001 motorcycle accident, and he has trouble hearing. In previous trials he testified on the witness stand that a part of his brain that controls speech died after the accident, and, like some stroke victims, he has trouble finding the correct words.