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Alaska Senator's Corruption Trial To Begin

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is surrounded by reporters as he leaves a committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 30, 2008.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens will testify at his federal corruption trial, he said Friday.

Stevens is accused of lying on Senate disclosure forms about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and renovations to his Girdwood home received form VECO Corp., an oil services company whose employees normally build oil pipelines and processing equipment. The trial starts Monday with jury selection in Washington, D.C.

Stevens maintained his innocence during a news conference Friday in Anchorage.

"I have said I am innocent of the charges against me and I think the trial will show that," Stevens said.

He urged Alaskans to reserve judgment until all the evidence is in.

Stevens, 84, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, also is seeking re-election in November. He says he plans to return to the state as much as possible during the trial, expected to last at least three weeks.

Stevens, who faces Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, in the general election, said he hopes to be able to return to Alaska several times in October when court is not in session.

Stevens said he plans to be back in Washington on Sunday so that he will be ready for the start of the trial.

He said he will attend court during the day and head to the Senate in the afternoons and evenings to work.

"I am not worried about my participation," Stevens said.

Wait-And-See Attitude

Political observers expect a close race between Stevens and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. Some voters are fed up with what they see as a wave of corruption in their state. Some are standing by their senator. Others are waiting to see what happens in court.

"There's a kind of long-standing respect and gratitude for the man that exceeds in force the disappointment they feel that this has come to pass," said James Muller, a political scientist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage who has supported Stevens. "There's some disbelief that he would have intentionally done something dishonest or wrong."

Stevens is charged with making false statements on Senate financial forms. But the case runs much deeper.

The Justice Department plans to describe a longtime relationship between Stevens and Bill Allen, found of VECO Corp., an oil pipeline services company now owned by Denver-based CH2M Hill. Allen showered Stevens with gifts, prosecutors say, including a renovation project that lifted Stevens' Alaska house on stilts so a new first floor could be built under it.

When Allen needed help securing business or navigating Washington's bureaucracy, prosecutors say he called Stevens.

Stevens' defense lawyers say that sounds like a bribery charge and they say the government is trying to hint at such corruption without actually having to prove it. They want to keep the case focused on what they see as a paperwork violation.

A key to the defense is that Stevens paid for much of the renovation and believed he was paying for all of it. Prosecutors must show that Stevens knowingly lied when he filled out his financial forms.

If not for the FBI investigation, it would have been unimaginable that Stevens would face a serious electoral challenge. But Begich is running a strong race with the support of Senate Democrats who sense an opportunity to seize a longtime Republican seat.

Begich can capitalize on Stevens' trial with aggressive campaigning in the coming weeks. Stevens, meanwhile, will be tethered to a Washington courtroom while the trial makes headlines. If the Justice Department makes its case in the court of public opinion, Stevens could be out of a job even if he escapes conviction. That is why he's urging voters to be patient.

"There's going to be a period of time when people have questions," he said. "When we get to our side, those questions will be answered."

Alaska Republican pollster David Dittman said he does not see how Stevens can lose on Election Day if the senator prevails in court before Alaskans vote. Stevens would return to Alaska having won a fight for his political life.

If Stevens can portray the case solely as a paperwork violation, Dittman said he might win re-election even if he is convicted, thanks to his lengthy record of delivering for Alaska.

"They might say, 'We can't afford to give that up because of paperwork mistakes,' " Dittman said. "If it is a case of paperwork, I think there's a very good chance he would win."

That result would create the unusual situation in which Stevens, if he did not step down, could face expulsion by his Senate colleagues. It would take a two-thirds vote to kick him out of the Senate - a punishment that has not happened in 146 years.

With all that looms ahead in the coming weeks, Stevens isn't running scared. He's running hard.

Ask about the difficulty of being on trial in the midst of a re-election, and Stevens talks about it as if he is stuck in an inconveniently scheduled business meeting. He will try to campaign on weekends, he says. Alaska voters understand.

Ask about all that this trial means, for his reputation, for his career and for his future, and Stevens is his usual blunt, confident self: "I don't have any fear of it."

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