WASHINGTON — A federal judge has turned down Sen. Ted Stevens' request to move his corruption trial to Alaska, tying the 84-year-old Alaska Republican to a Washington courtroom at the height of his re-election campaign 3,500 miles away.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan decided Wednesday that the trial will remain in the nation's capital and will continue on an accelerated schedule. The judge offered to take Fridays off during the trial so that Stevens could travel to Alaska to campaign on the weekends, but the senator's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, was lukewarm to the idea, especially if it means a slower path to a verdict.
Stevens asked for — and received — a speedy trial schedule so that he could go to court before the Nov. 4 election. Jury selection is set to begin Sept. 22 and the trial is scheduled to start two days later. It's expected to last four weeks.
"We want the earliest possible trial," his attorney said. "We want the verdict as far this side of Election Day as possible."
Stevens faces seven felony counts of knowingly taking home repairs and gifts worth more than $250,000 from the oil services company Veco Corp. and failing to report them on his annual Senate disclosure forms from 2001 through 2006. If he's convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each count.
Stevens was in Alaska on Wednesday campaigning for the Senate seat he's held since 1968 and didn't attend the court hearing. Next Tuesday, he's expected to finish first against six opponents in a Republican primary. He faces a more difficult general election contest come November, when he's expected to face Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the Democratic challenger, who's pulled ahead of the senator in some polls.
Stevens released a statement Wednesday saying that he'd asked his attorneys to request a venue change "because I wanted Alaskans to have a firsthand opportunity to learn the facts of this matter."
"I understand the court's decision today, and continue to have every faith in the fairness of the American judicial system and the court's commitment to conduct a speedy trial," Stevens said. "I welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that I am innocent of these changes."
His campaign spokesman, Aaron Saunders, said that a Washington trial had "little impact on this campaign moving forward." The campaign will "build upon our organization and support base" to "ensure this is a vibrant campaign," Saunders said.
Stevens' lawyers argued unsuccessfully Wednesday that the trial should be moved because many of the witnesses are in Alaska and that jurors should see Stevens' Girdwood home, where Veco employees, including Chief Executive Officer Bill Allen, oversaw renovations in 2000 that doubled it in size. They also argued that it would be disruptive for Stevens to have the trial in Washington while he runs for re-election in Alaska.
His lawyer held up a map of the United States, hoping to illustrate the distance. The charges in the case are about events that happened in Alaska, Brendan Sullivan argued, not Washington.
"Forms were filed here? So what!" he said. "It's all about Alaska."
Brendan Sullivan also complained that federal investigators have been working on this case for several years, giving prosecutors ample opportunity to bring charges on a timetable that wouldn't have interfered with the election.
"They didn't have to bring this 28 days before a primary and 98 days before the election," he said.
However, Judge Sullivan signaled early during Wednesday's hearing that he was disinclined to move the trial, in part because he'd worked so hard to clear his own calendar to hear the case quickly.
"This court went to great lengths — I emphasize, great lengths — to rearrange its calendar," he said as he read his decision.
Also, prosecutors assured the judge that there'd be no problem getting faraway witnesses to Washington. The trial is appropriate here, prosecutors said, since that's where they allege that the crimes occurred.