WASHINGTON — A federal jury on Monday found Republican Sen. Ted Stevens guilty on seven counts of lying about thousands of dollars of gifts and home renovations on his financial disclosure forms, a verdict that ended in disgrace the four-decade Senate career of a man whose imprint on Alaska dates to before its statehood.
It's an almost unprecedented conviction by a jury of a sitting U.S. senator and the Justice Department's highest-profile felony conviction in a sweeping four-year federal investigation into corruption in Alaska politics.
Jurors found Stevens, 84, guilty of willfully filing false financial-disclosure forms that hid such gifts as a $2,695 massage chair, a stained-glass window, a sled dog and renovations that doubled the size of his home in Alaska. Those gifts, valued at as much as $250,000 over seven years, came mostly from his former friend Bill Allen, the star prosecution witness and the former chief executive of Veco Corp. The oilfield-services company was one of Alaska's largest private employers before Allen, caught up in the federal corruption probe himself, was forced to sell it last year.
Now, Alaska voters will decide whether Stevens, who's represented the state in the Senate since 1968 and before that served in the state legislature and as a former assistant U.S. attorney and Interior Department official, should continue to serve as their senator.
The verdict came quickly for the jurors, who deliberated for less than two full days. As the jury foreman read out the first guilty count Monday afternoon, the senator slumped slightly but was silent. When the second count was read, his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, reached over and put his arm around Stevens. Sullivan shook his head in disappointment as the verdict was read.
As the senator exited the packed courtroom, his wife, Catherine, kissed him on the cheek.
"It's not over yet," he told her. She responded: "You got that right."
Then he added, "Not over yet."
Stevens' lawyers, whose law firm is well known for not speaking to the news media, exited the courthouse with the senator, who sped off in a van without saying anything.
Several hours after the verdict, Stevens issued a defiant statement maintaining his innocence. He accused prosecutors of misconduct and announced his intention to remain a U.S. Senate candidate on the Nov. 4 ballot.
"I am obviously disappointed in the verdict but not surprised given the repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct in this case," Stevens said. "I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have."
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has not yet set a date for sentencing and first must hear a series of post-trial motion, such as one from Stevens seeking a new trial. Each of the seven felony counts carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
For the first time in his career, Stevens faces a competitive re-election fight, against Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
The Alaska Democratic Party called for Stevens to resign, but Begich was more measured.
"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," Begich said in a statement.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, issued a statement keeping in line with the anti-corruption rhetoric that figures in her campaign trail stump speeches.
"This is a sad day for Alaska and for Senator Stevens and his family," Palin 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. That control 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."
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: "This verdict is a personal tragedy for our colleague Ted Stevens, but it is an important reminder that no man is above the law. Senator Stevens must now respect the outcome of the judicial process and the dignity of the United States Senate."
Stevens, who was indicted in late July, sought an early trial date, gambling that he'd be acquitted before he faced voters. Even without the conviction, though, in order to re-elect Stevens, voters would have to overlook four weeks of testimony that exposed some of the senator’s innermost financial and personal secrets.
The guilty verdict will complicate not only his re-election bid but also the remainder of his current term in the Senate. His colleagues have the option — never exercised — of voting to expel him before his term ends in January. Four U.S. senators have been convicted of crimes, historians note, but not one has received a presidential pardon.
The rules of succession are complicated in Alaska, where courts haven't ruled on a referendum that prohibits the governor from appointing a senator if the office is vacant. That referendum was enacted after then-Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to the U.S. Senate seat he vacated.
The corruption trial, which began Sept. 22, featured 24 government and 28 defense witnesses. Jurors began their deliberations Wednesday afternoon but halted Friday morning when one of the jurors left town for her father's funeral. Judge Sullivan appointed an alternate juror Monday morning, and by 4 p.m., the panel had reached a verdict.
Stevens took the stand in his own defense, a strategy that appeared to hurt him after prosecutors painted him as a disagreeable and mean-spirited man who considered himself above the law.
"This has been a long and hard-fought trial," Matthew Friedrich, the head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in a press conference outside the courthouse after the trial. "The department is proud of this team not only for this trial but for the investigation which led to it. This investigation continues, as does our commitment to holding elected officials accountable when they violate our laws."
Stevens' defense rested on the theory that he and his wife had paid all the bills they'd received in connection with the renovations of their home in Girdwood, Alaska.
Catherine Stevens also took the stand, providing contradictory testimony that may have persuaded the jurors that the couple’s conflicting stories meant they were lying or covering up a crime.
The jurors had to weigh the husband and wife testimony against that of Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska in an unrelated case. Allen agreed to testify in Stevens' trial and two others in exchange for leniency in his own sentencing and the promise that prosecutors wouldn't charge his children in the corruption investigation.
(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News. Michael Doyle contributed to this article.)
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