WASHINGTON - Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain distanced himself from Sen. Ted Stevens Wednesday, a day after his longtime rival was indicted on charges of lying about more than $250,000 in gifts he got from an oil services company.
Through a spokeswoman, McCain suggested Stevens' legal troubles have resulted from his practice of "earmarking" pet projects to his state and his constituents. The two have fought bitterly for years over the practice.
"This is a sad reminder that the next president will have his work cut out for him in rebuilding public trust by ending once and for all pork barrel spending and reforming Washington from top to bottom," said McCain campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace.
In a seven-count indictment handed up Tuesday, federal prosecutors said VECO Corp., which gave Stevens about $250,000 worth of home improvements, has simultaneously asked him for numerous federal grants and contracts benefiting the company, its subsidiaries and business partners.
While some colleagues greeted the Alaska lawmaker with warm embraces, several Republicans distanced themselves from him Wednesday as he returned to work in the Senate.
"Hey, Ted ... say it ain't so," came the greeting from the longest serving senator in history, 90-year-old Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., reaching up from his wheelchair during a set of floor votes. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., gave Stevens a warm hug.
But on the eve of his arraignment in federal court on felony charges of falsifying financial disclosure forms to hide gifts from VECO and its top executive, a half-dozen GOP colleagues of Stevens gave campaign contributions from him to charity.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky kept his views to himself for another day, as other Republicans also declined to comment on whether they support Stevens' decision to remain in office, much less seek a full seventh term.
About the only encouragement many Republicans would offer is that Stevens is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
"I'm not going to talk about Sen. Stevens, OK?" said Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
"He's innocent until proven guilty," said Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
And Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the campaign committee for Senate Republicans, declined to restate his endorsement of Stevens, running for re-election to a seventh full Senate term, in a six-way Aug. 26 GOP primary.
"There's an electoral process in place and a legal process in place, and we will let the process play out," Ensign said.
The responses seemed to suggest that Senate Republicans are flummoxed over what to do about Stevens, whose legal troubles could very well cost the party a long-held seat.
Unlike the harsh greeting afforded Idaho Republican Larry Craig last summer after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor related to soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, none of Stevens' GOP colleagues have demanded his resignation. In Craig's case, McConnell, Ensign and a raft of others demanded his resignation. Craig refused, and is serving out the last few months of his term.
Republicans such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota said the difference in Stevens' case is that he maintains his innocence.
Stevens, however, has only said he is innocent of "knowingly" submitting a false disclosure form; since his indictment, he has not addressed the underlying accusation of accepting gifts from VECO and Bill Allen, the company's former top executive.
Stevens has a reputation for toughness and stubbornness and has vowed to fight the charges. His campaign vows he is pressing on "full steam ahead" for re-election and circulated an e-mail Wednesday claiming "the most incredible in-pouring of calls and walk-ins in support for the Senator" since the charges were announced.
Stevens refused to comment to a pack of reporters shadowing his moves around the Capitol. He is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court today. It will be up to a judge to decide where Stevens can travel, whom he needs to check in with and what rules he must follow as he campaigns and continues working as a senator.
Stevens, 84, the first sitting U.S. senator to face federal indictment since 1993, declared Tuesday, "I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that." His campaign spokesman said his office had been flooded with calls and e-mails from supporters urging him to press on.
The Justice Department accused Stevens of accepting expensive work on his home in Girdwood from VECO and its executives. VECO normally builds oil processing equipment and pipelines, but its employees helped do the work on Stevens' home.
Prosecutors said that work included a new first floor, garage, wraparound deck, plumbing and electrical wiring. He also is accused of accepting from VECO a gas grill, furniture and tools, and of failing to report swapping an old Ford for a new Land Rover for his daughter Lily.
From May 1999 to August 2007, prosecutors said, the senator concealed "his continuing receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of things of value from a private corporation."