Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and his wife Catherine Stevens, arrive at Federal Court in Washington, Monday, Oct. 27, 2008, Monday, Oct. 27,2008. Stevens was convicted of lying about free home renovations and other gifts he received from a wealthy oil contractor. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted of seven corruption charges Monday in a trial that threatened to end the 40-year career of Alaska’s political patriarch in disgrace. The verdict, coming barely a week before Election Day, increased Stevens’ difficulty in winning what already was a difficult race against Democratic challenger Mark Begich. Democrats hope to seize the once reliably Republican seat as part of their bid for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Stevens, 84, was convicted of all the felony charges he faced of lying about free home renovations and other gifts from a wealthy oil contractor. Jurors began deliberating last week. Visibly shaken after the verdicts were read – the jury foreman declaring “guilty” seven times – Stevens tried to intertwine his fingers but quickly put his hands down to his side after noticing they were trembling. As he left the courtroom, Stevens got a quick kiss on the cheek from his wife, Catherine, who testified on his behalf during the trial. He declined to talk to reporters waiting outside.
Stevens faces up to five years in prison on each count when he is sentenced, but under federal guidelines he is likely to receive much less prison time, if any. The judge originally scheduled sentencing for Jan. 26 but then changed his mind and did not immediately set a date. The monthlong trial revealed that employees for VECO Corp., an oil services company, transformed Stevens’ modest mountain cabin into a modern, two-story home with wraparound porches, a sauna and a wine cellar.
The Senate’s longest-serving Republican, Stevens said he had no idea he was getting freebies. He said he paid $160,000 for the project and believed that covered everything. He had asked for an unusually speedy trial, hoping he’d be exonerated in time to return to Alaska and win re-election. He kept his campaign going and gave no indication that he had a contingency plan in case of conviction.
Despite being a convicted felon, he is not required to drop out of the race or resign from the Senate. If he wins re-election, he can continue to hold his seat because there is no rule barring felons from serving in Congress. The Senate could vote to expel him on a two-thirds vote. “Put this down: That will never happen – ever, OK?” Stevens said in the weeks leading up to his trial. “I am not stepping down. I’m going to run through, and I’m going to win this election.”
Democrats have invested heavily in the race, running television advertisements starring fictional FBI agents and featuring excerpts from wiretaps. Stevens’ conviction hinged on the testimony of Bill Allen, the senator’s longtime drinking and fishing buddy. Allen, the founder of VECO, testified that he never billed his friend for the work on the house and that Stevens knew he was getting a special deal. Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying that allegation. He said his wife, Catherine, paid every bill they received.
Living in Washington, thousands of miles away, made it impossible to monitor the project every day, he said. Stevens relied on Allen to oversee the renovations, he said, and his friend deceived him by not forwarding all the bills. Prosecutors used a barrage of witnesses to question how Stevens could have been in the dark about VECO’s work on the project. VECO employees testified to seeing Stevens at the house. One left him a company business card. Stevens sent thank you notes to others.
Stevens’ conviction is the highlight of a lengthy FBI investigation into Alaska corruption, but prosecutors noted that it is not the end. Stevens’ longtime Republican colleague, Rep. Don Young, remains under investigation for his ties to VECO. Stevens’ son, Ben, a former Alaska lawmaker, is also under investigation. Stevens is a legendary figure in Alaska, where he has wielded political influence since before statehood. His knack for steering billions of dollars in federal money to his home state has drawn praise from his constituents and consternation from budget hawks.
There was no immediate word on Stevens’ campaign plans. His spokesman, Aaron Saunders, did not immediately return a message seeking comment on whether Stevens would stay in the race. In Alaska, the Democratic Party issued a statement calling for Stevens to resign immediately. “He knew what he was doing was wrong,” the party said. “But he did it anyway and lied to Alaskans about it.”
Stevens is the sixth senator convicted of criminal charges. The last previous one was Republican David Durenberger of Minnesota, who was indicted in 1993 on charges of conspiring to make fraudulent claims for Senate reimbursement of $3,825 in lodging expenses. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $1,000 fine.
The jurors left the court without comment. Said U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan: “The jurors have unanimously told me that no one has any desire to speak to any member of the media. They have asked to go home and they are en route home.” The jurors had been shuttled to and from the proceedings each day by court officials.