WASHINGTON - With President George W. Bush issuing a round of pardons this week and presumed to be granting as many as two more rounds before he leaves office, it begs the question: Will Sen. Ted Stevens ask for one?
The 85-year-old Republican senator was convicted Oct. 27 by a federal jury on seven counts of lying on his financial disclosure forms. After a cliffhanger of an election that took two weeks to count, Stevens last week lost the Senate seat he held for 40 years. With his sentencing looming sometime early in 2009, Stevens faces as much as five years in prison on each corruption count.
But it's unclear whether Stevens even intends to ask for a pardon -- and the prospect of Bush circumventing his customary clemency procedures to pardon Stevens is unlikely and even less likely under a Democratic president.
However, Stevens has pressed forward with an appeal of his conviction. During his farewell speech on the Senate floor last week, Stevens made it clear he intends to continue his appeal, saying he can "still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me." And just last week his lawyers continued their attack on the conduct of prosecutors in the case, by asking for a hearing, now scheduled for Monday, to examine a claim by one of the witnesses against Stevens that he was lying on the stand about an immunity deal.
Stevens also told a pack of news media "no, no, no" when asked the day he lost the election whether he would seek a pardon, but his spokesman, Aaron Saunders, said he wasn't saying "no" to the idea. The senator was simply declining to answer the question, Saunders said.
Later that day, when asked by the Daily News to clarify his remarks, Stevens didn't rule out seeking a pardon: "That's something that's beyond me," he said, waving his hands as though to push the question aside. "That's beyond me."
Wev Shea, the U.S. attorney for Alaska from 1990 to 1993 and a Stevens supporter, said he hasn't spoken to him about a pardon. But he encourages Stevens to seek one -- and also urges him to continue to appeal his conviction.
"Should he? He absolutely should seek a pardon," Shea said. "If I were counsel to him, I would encourage him. I strongly believe President Bush should pardon Senator Stevens."
If Stevens were to seek a pardon, it would not be through the traditional path, which can take years. Stevens "hasn't submitted an application for any sort of clemency" to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, said Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. Typically, any applicants start with the Justice Department, although its pardon office doesn't even look at requests from convicts who haven't yet been sentenced.
However, the president has broad constitutional authority to issue pardons and could act outside of the scope of the process if he so chooses.
Bush circumvented the Office of the Pardon Attorney last year when he commuted the sentence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby had faced a two-and-a-half year sentence for lying and obstructing justice in the CIA leak case, and by having his sentence commuted, he avoided serving prison time. Bush did not issue Libby a full pardon, though, and at the time wouldn't rule out doing so at a later date.
But as an elected official whose conviction and eventual sentencing on corruption charges could be seen as a cautionary tale to other officeholders, Stevens might be out of luck. So far, Bush has been a reluctant pardoner, and lawyers who have been watching the process say he's unlikely to change his practices in the final days of his presidency. Few of his pardons, with the notable exception of Libby, have been of high-profile people.
The White House wouldn't comment.
"We never comment on pardons," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "People who are eligible to apply for a pardon can do so through the pardon attorney at the Department of Justice. And we don't comment on the deliberations that are under way."
Monday, Bush granted 14 pardons and commuted two sentences. Including the most recent, he has pardoned just 171 people and commuted eight sentences since taking office.
That's fewer than half the pardons granted by former president Bill Clinton, who drew criticism for an undisciplined end-of-term pardon spree that led to congressional investigations. Overall, Clinton pardoned 396 people and commuted 61 sentences.
Of those, Clinton's pardon of former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington bears comparison to Stevens, said clemency expert Daniel Kobil, a law professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.
Symington resigned after a jury found him guilty in 1997 of defrauding lenders in his previous career as real estate developer. His conviction was overturned on appeal and Clinton pardoned him in the final days of his administration in 2001.
Kobil said it would be unsurprising for Stevens to pursue multiple avenues to clear his name, including a traditional appeal of his conviction and an attempt to seek a pardon. Forty years as a senator gives him a unique access to decision makers ordinary people don't have, Kobil said.
"Given his obvious political connections, he might have a shot at going directly to the White House," Kobil said. "I certainly wouldn't rule it out if I was his attorney. I would try to use back-channel ways. He's got to go right to the top."