September 24th, 2008
02:25 PM ET
14 years ago

Stevens trial seen as key to political future

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Sen. Stevens greeted onlookers in July as he entered the federal courthouse for his arraignment."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The political future of one of the power houses of the U.S. Senate, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), will most likely rest in the hands of a Washington jury with opening statements in his trial set for Thursday morning. Political and legal experts say there is little doubt Stevens' re-election will be determined by his guilt or innocence. Stevens, 84, was locked in a tight re-election contest with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich even before the indictment against him was returned at the end of July.

Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the Senate, is charged with failing to report on his congressional disclosure forms renovations to his Alaska home, including the creation of a first floor, new garage and a new deck, paid for by the Alaska-based oil services corporation VECO as well as other gifts from the company, such as a new Land Rover which was exchanged for an older car and a gas grill.

Prosecutors allege Stevens received more than $250,000 worth of goods. The seven-term senator is not charged with receiving bribes although prosecutors allege in the indictment "Stevens could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of VECO."

The senator, known in Washington as combative and self-confident, has characteristically not backed down, maintaining his innocence saying he paid for all bills related to the home renovation given to him. His defense attorneys pushed for a quick start to the proceedings knowing the charges would dominate the election campaign.

"I asked for a speedy trial because I wanted one. I'm glad I'm having the chance to have one because I have entered my plea and said I'm innocent of the charges against me. I think the trial will show that," Stevens told reporters last Friday in a news conference in Alaska. "I've urged Alaskans not to make a judgment about this situation until all the evidence is in and told them I have faith in our judicial, justice system and faith in myself."

Some legal experts believe Stevens can beat the charges.

"How is the government going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew the actual value of these renovations when he had asked, received, and paid for bills for them," former federal prosecutor Michael Levy says explaining the burden facing the Justice Department.

One possible tactic for the defense team, led by veteran attorney Brendan Sullivan, is to portray Stevens, one of the most powerful senators, as a busy incumbent dealing with a multitude of important issues.

"If they paint him somewhat as a very busy or perhaps absent-minded individual who's not focused there you could appeal to several jurors. After all, all of us have a lot going on in our lives, as do these jurors, and that may resonate with some of them," former federal prosecutor Joshua Berman says regarding a possible defense strategy.

Judge Emmet Sullivan this week granted Stevens' lawyers' request for him to miss some court sessions if there were key Senate votes happening.

"He is certainly known for being a very strong-willed man. Now there is a fine line here. You do not want to suggest to jurors or to a judge that you are dissing them," political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says.

Since Stevens will have to be in court most days of the trial, which is expected to last about a month, his ability to fly to Alaska to campaign will be dramatically limited although he did say last week he hoped to come back to the state at least "several times" in October.

As to whether he will take the witness stand himself, he told reporters Friday, "That is up to my lawyers, but that is my intention," although the legal experts CNN spoke to were divided about whether he would testify.

Former prosecutor Berman says Stevens testifying could be the best way to explain away some of the government's key evidence.

"It's gonna be hard for Senator Stevens to get away from the fact that he did receive these things of value. Two, he did not apparently disclose them on his financial form. And three, you've got the VECO executives... who will testify in his trial against him."

The central witness against Stevens will be a former VECO chief executive officer who has pleaded guilty to bribing several Alaska state lawmakers and who was caught by the FBI on undercover video soliciting favors from them.

"Bill Allen is going to be central to this case. He's the primary accuser against Senator Stevens. The government is gonna say that he's finally come forward and is telling the truth about the relationship between Veco and Senator Stevens. The defense is gonna sit there and say this is a man who's got more than a decade of jail time hanging over his head, and the only way he can save his own skin is to sing whatever song the prosecutors want him to sing– and that's all he's doing," former prosecutor Levy says.

Stevens is the first sitting U.S. Senator to face trial since 1981 when Harrison Williams (D-New Jersey) was convicted of bribery and conspiracy.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin at 9:30a.

Eleven women and five men make up the jury of 12 regular and four alternates. The jurors will not be told whether they are alternates until the end of the trial.

- CNN Producer Paul Courson contributed to this story.

Filed under: Ted Stevens
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Brian

    Just another crook looking to railroad the U.S. justice system.

    September 24, 2008 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  2. bert

    McCain is runing from the debate and they are trying to keep Palin out of the spot light!!!!!!! P.O.T.U.S. is something that is too serious to put on hold. MCCAIN IS CRAZY AND THIS IS A PLOY TO KEEP HIS FALLING NUMBERS FROM FALLING MORE. SUSPENDING HIS CAMPAIGN WILL NOT MAKE THE 700B PLAN GO ANY SMOOTHER. HE HAS ONE VOTE AS A SENATOR BUT THE PRESINDENT HAS A LOUDER VOICE. Obama needs to keep the pressure on the slick GOP. They are hiding Palin and now they want to hide McCain. The GOP are weak and they are trying to pull a fast one. ELECTING A PRESIDENT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN A MERE 700 BILLION DOLLARS. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH MONEY THIS NATION MAKES AND IS CAPABLE OF MAKING? VOTE FOR OBAMA 08 AND 2012.

    September 24, 2008 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  3. sitka, ak

    If Ted Stevens, Republican Senator from Alaska and Don Young, Republican Congressman from Alaska could talk to Sarah Palin, they would not be very pleasant to her. Both despise her for doing the right thing.
    That is why both are under federal investigation presently.

    September 24, 2008 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  4. george from alaska

    He's a slick old bird that is guilty as hell but will probably beat the charges. He's been around long enough to deserve a break...not like Palin who should be thrown in the jail without a key...

    September 24, 2008 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  5. Dan from Philly

    Surprise! Another dirty Alaskan Republican in the pocket of the oil companies.

    Way to clean up that corruption, Sarah!!

    September 24, 2008 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  6. Phil Newton in Murphy, Oregon

    So long, Uncle Ted.

    On a Road to Nowhere. Crossing a Bridge to Nowhere.

    Ted? Take Mrs. Palin with you.


    September 24, 2008 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  7. Befuddled

    Sounds like a good job for Palin once the old pork gatherer gets convicted. Of course, she may have to speak to run for office.

    September 24, 2008 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  8. Candia

    "Political and legal experts say there is little doubt Stevens' re-election will be determined by his guilt or innocence."

    Well, I would find it baffling if that were not so! If he were he to be re-elected should he be found guilty, what does that say about respect for law? Is that even legally possible?

    September 24, 2008 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  9. Joseph Adewole

    That is what all these Republicans have been doing; an oil company paying for a law maker's expenses to his personal property, how on earth do you expect such a person to have the interest of The Americans in mind?
    They can 'sell fish' everywhere....but truth will prevail in November.

    September 24, 2008 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  10. Michael

    Drill Baby Drill................

    Thats what they are gonna say to you in Prison "Pal"

    September 24, 2008 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  11. Randy, San Francisco

    Flew into the Ted Stevens International Airport in June. They should have named the airport for someone who is no longer living.

    September 24, 2008 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  12. Dem4Cynthia08

    This country needs a viable 3rd party candidate. The Republicans made the mess and the Democrats let them do it. Neither Obama or McCain are worthy to lead this country out of the hole.
    VOTE GREEN '08 !!!

    September 24, 2008 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  13. Rodger

    Sure he did...his friends at Veco paid them and gave gifts because they love him. If the Justice Department filed haft the charges he is guilty of, the trial would take 6 months, Stevens should go to jail

    September 24, 2008 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  14. Ron was a REP now a DEM

    Was he a mentor to Gov. Palin?

    September 24, 2008 07:12 pm at 7:12 pm |