The Bush administration came to an end Tuesday, and with it went the chance of a pardon for Alaska's most powerful political figure since statehood, Ted Stevens.
Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator until his defeat in November, is now left to fight his conviction in the courts.
According to his friends, that's exactly how he wants it.
When Stevens was indicted July 29 on seven counts of lying on his financial disclosures statements, he demanded the earliest trial date possible, asserting he would be declared not guilty in time to face the voters for his seventh full term. That plan collapsed Oct. 27 when a District of Columbia jury convicted him on all counts.
"It's not over yet!" Stevens declared as he walked out of the courtroom. But his 40-year career representing Alaska in Washington, D.C., was doomed. Former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, defeated him a week later.
Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who has taken Stevens' place as the senior senator from Alaska, sought the pardon from Bush in a letter to the White House on Jan. 7. Whether others also petitioned the president on behalf of Stevens couldn't be determined.
Murkowski's plea surfaced last weekend, but she declined to make her letter public, fearing it could somehow backfire in the waning hours of the Bush presidency. When a pardon was rendered moot with Barack Obama's swearing-in Tuesday, she released the text. Through her spokesman, she declined an interview request.
"Senator Stevens has indicated that he does not intend to seek a pardon," Murkowski said in her letter. "I am pursuing this request, on my own initiative, in the interest of justice and out of compassion for a man who has served our Nation and the State of Alaska with great distinction for all of his adult life."
Two friends of Stevens, former Gov. Bill Sheffield and developer and sportfishing advocate Bob Penney, said in recent interviews that Stevens wanted to fight to clear his name. They said they believed that Stevens wouldn't want a pardon because it would short-circuit his efforts to get his charges thrown out or to win a new trial. Stevens worried that a pardon would forever cloud his legacy, they said, even as it would keep him safe from prison and spare him a felony record.
Murkowski noted Stevens' desires in her letter to Bush, and explained why she was going ahead anyway.
"Senator Stevens' efforts to protect his rights might cause some to suggest it is premature to consider a pardon. In this instance I submit that the equities weigh heavily in favor of a pardon. Senator Stevens is 85 years old. Further proceedings in the courts will be lengthy and costly. It is not unreasonable to suggest that they could dominate Senator Stevens' attention for the remainder of his life."
Murkowski said Stevens could more productively be engaged with "chronicling his extraordinary life of public service for the benefit of generations to come than continue to pursue justice in an adversarial environment."
With the pardon off the table, Stevens' case continues to bump through the courts. The post-trial phase has been particularly messy, with one FBI agent accusing another agent and Stevens' prosecutors of unethical and possibly illegal conduct, a key witness saying he gave false testimony, and revelations that one juror ducked out of the case to attend a horse race in California only to be replaced by another who wrote a tell-all blog with uncomplimentary nicknames for most of the trial participants.
The case is proceeding on at least three tracks. Stevens' lawyers have filed a 78-page motion for dismissal of the charges or a new trial, alleging prosecutorial and juror misconduct, errors by the judge, and other issues. The government responded with an 80-page rebuttal, asserting the trial was fair and the evidence against Stevens compelling. Arguments on those motions are scheduled for Feb. 25 before the trial judge, Emmet Sullivan, though some filing deadlines have already slipped.
Related to the motions is an effort by Stevens to uncover facts about the witness who said he testified falsely, though that testimony, about an alleged deal for his cooperation, didn't bear directly on the case itself. The Stevens legal team also wants to question officials and witnesses under oath about the allegations in the complaint by the FBI agent, Chad Joy. How that will be handled is the subject of another hearing before Sullivan Jan. 29. The defense hopes he orders a full-blown evidentiary hearing that would run like a mini trial.
A third matter is now before the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The Justice Department is appealing an order from Sullivan directing the attorney general to account for how Joy's complaint was handled in the weeks before it became public. Sullivan complaint about getting conflicting stories from different prosecutors and ordered Michael Mukasey or a deputy to respond by last Saturday with an official account.
In a petition filed Saturday, the Justice Department asked the circuit court to intervene, saying the time allowance was too short and that the attorney general was the wrong person to supply the answers.
The appellate court stayed Sullivan's order and directed a written response by Stevens' lawyers to be hand-filed by noon Friday eastern time and a reply by the government not later than 4 p.m. Monday.Alaska Politics blog: Read the Murkowski letter
By RICHARD MAUER