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Stevens vows to fight guilty verdict

After conviction, senator says he will stay in race

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008

WASHINGTON - He was once third in line to the presidency, his power over Senate purse strings unrivaled. He favored an "Incredible Hulk" necktie, a warning not to rile him.

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / The Associated Press
Manuel Balce Ceneta / The Associated Press

Yet Sen. Ted Stevens could hardly control his trembling hands Monday as the jury foreman read the verdict: Guilty on all seven felony charges of lying about a bonanza of home renovation gifts and favors he received from a millionaire oil contractor.

Stevens, 84 and the Senate's longest-serving Republican, slumped in his chair and stared at the ceiling as his lawyer comforted him. He could face prison. And the verdict, barely a week before Election Day, threatened to end his 40-year Senate career in disgrace.

Or maybe not.

After leaving court without speaking to reporters, Stevens released a fighting statement accusing prosecutors of misconduct, promising to appeal the verdict and pledging to stay in the race for re-election.

"I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights," Stevens said. "I remain a candidate for the United States Senate. I will come home on Wednesday and ask for your vote."

Though the convictions are a significant blow in what was already a challenging race against Democrat Mark Begich, they do not disqualify him, and Stevens is still hugely popular in Alaska.

The jury - itself a daily drama, even trying to expel one of its own members - convicted Stevens of all the charges he faced, accusations based heavily on the testimony of an oil contractor who for years had been a fishing and drinking buddy.

He could face significant prison time, but under federal guidelines he may not actually serve any. The judge did not immediately set a sentencing date.

The monthlong trial revealed that employees for VECO Corp., an oil services company, transformed Stevens' modest Alaska mountain cabin into a modern, two-story home with wraparound porches, a sauna and a wine cellar.

Stevens said he had no idea he was getting freebies. He said his wife, Catherine, handled the business of the renovation. He said he paid $160,000 for the project and believed that covered everything.

As his attorneys had during the trial, Stevens said in a statement issued afterward that prosecutors had improperly held back favorable evidence, had sent a crucial witness back to Alaska and "allowed evidence to be introduced that they knew was false."

"I am innocent," he declared.

He had asked for an unusually speedy trial, hoping he'd be exonerated in time to win re-election. 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."

Taking nothing for granted, Begich said merely, "This past year has been a difficult time for Alaskans, but our people are strong and resilient and I believe that we will be able to move forward together to address the critical challenges that face Alaska."

Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, said, "The verdict shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company that was allowed to control too much of our state. It was part of the culture of corruption I was elected to fight. And that fight must always move forward regardless of party or seniority or even past service."

"I'm confident Senator Stevens will do what's right for the people of Alaska."

Carl Shepro, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, said, "It's very possible that he's going to win the election."

Many Alaskans believe Stevens is being unjustly attacked, and that the charges against him don't amount to real corruption, Shepro said.

Democrats, hoping to pick up a long-sought Republican seat, have invested heavily in the race, running television advertisements starring fictional FBI agents and featuring excerpts from wiretaps introduced at the trial.

Stevens' conviction hinged on the testimony of Bill Allen, the senator's longtime friend and the founder of VECO. He testified he never billed Stevens for the work on the house and the senator knew he was getting a special deal.

Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying that allegation. He said his wife 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 but consternation from others.

Stevens is the fifth 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 jury 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."

They had been a story all by themselves after deliberations began last Wednesday.

They complained of stress and violent outbursts in the jury room. They tried to expel one of their members. They asked to go home early. Then one of them said her father had died, and she was allowed to go home to California. Then she couldn't be reached.

The judge put an alternate on the jury on Monday, and within hours there was a verdict.



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