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Mixed Feelings Unfold After Alaska Senator’s Indictment

July 31, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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Following Sen. Ted Stevens' indictment Thursday on charges of concealing more than $250,000 worth of gifts, two reporters measure the reaction in Alaska and Washington, D.C., and the challenges of the upcoming trial.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: To the folks back home, he is “Uncle Ted.” Republican Ted Stevens, Alaska’s champion in the U.S. Senate for 40 years, has brought home many billions in money and projects for his remote and sparsely populated state.

In 2000, he was named “Alaskan of the Century” for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years.

SEN. TED STEVENS (R), Alaska: The amendment is not agreed to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stevens is also a major influence in Washington. He was a powerful top Republican on both the Senate Appropriations and Commerce Committees, until Tuesday, when a political earthquake hit: He was indicted by a criminal grand jury.

Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Friedrich described the law Stevens is charged with breaking.

MATTHEW FRIEDRICH, acting assistant attorney general: Sen. Stevens was required to file financial disclosure forms with the secretary of the Senate. A primary purpose of such forms is to disclose, monitor, and deter conflicts of interest and maintain public confidence in the United States Senate and its membership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stevens faces seven counts of making false statements in failing to disclose more than $250,000 worth of things of value he received from an Alaskan businessman and his oil pipeline company, VECO. Those gifts included construction materials and labor on this resort home owned by Stevens.

MATTHEW FRIEDRICH: These items were not disclosed on Sen. Stevens’ financial disclosure forms, which he filed under penalties of perjury, either as gifts or as liabilities, and further that Sen. Stevens did not reimburse or repay VECO or its chief executive officer for these items.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Friedrich went on to make clear that, while Stevens helped VECO, the senator is not facing bribery charges.

Vowing to fight the indictment, Stevens issued a statement, saying, “It saddens me to learn that these charges have been brought against me. I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator. I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that.”

Today, Stevens was quickly in and out of federal court in Washington, where he pled not guilty.

Stevens’ indictment comes as part of broader federal investigation into political corruption in Alaska. The former speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, Pete Kott, was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison in December.

Steven’s son, Ben, a former state senator, is also under investigation.

A tough case in September

For more on the fallout from the Stevens case, we get two perspectives now. Michael Carey hosts a weekly political program for Alaska Public Television, and he's a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News. And he joins us now from Anchorage.

And Martin Kady is a reporter for Politico. He was in the courtroom today for the arraignment proceedings.

And, Martin Kady, to you first. Tell us what happened in the courtroom.

MARTIN KADY, Politico: Well, it was interesting seeing Ted Stevens sit down there in a courtroom under indictment for these corruption charges, but it was very sort of simple, straightforward.

They stood up. His lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, they pleaded not guilty. They set a trial date.

But there were two interesting things that happened. One is that they asked for a motion to change the venue. They'd like to have this trial in Alaska. It's highly unlikely the judge is going to allow that.

The other is that they asked for a speedy trial. They want it to happen before the election November 4th. They've set a September 24th trial date, so this going to happen very fast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a sense of why they got that fast date? That often doesn't happen.

MARTIN KADY: Yes, I mean, these things often drag out due to motions, and continuances, and evidence problems, but there's actually a right to a speedy trial. There's a 1947 law called the right to the speedy trial. You can have the trial go through in 70 days after the indictment.

So I think they want to do that. Plus, there's political consequences. So he wants to get this done. They seem confident that they can somehow beat this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you've been talking, Martin Kady, with some attorneys today. Did you get a sense of how strong a case they think the prosecution has?

MARTIN KADY: Well, if you read the indictment -- there's a 28-page indictment -- there's e-mails that they have, you know, with Ted Stevens writing to the contractors, the VECO guys, saying, "Thanks for all the great work."

And the indictment also says he knew that he was having all this work done and he never paid them anything. But the lawyers we talked to said this isn't necessarily slam-dunk. This isn't bribery. There was no quid pro quo. He didn't say, "I'm going to do this because you gave me this." It's not like Duke Cunningham who took cash and gave earmarks.

So there are potential holes here where they -- this is really something that might end up being a paperwork thing. He didn't properly file his financial disclosures.

But if you look at his statement, he said, "I never knowingly filed false reports." So that's a little wiggle room. Maybe they're going to try to prove that there was no intent on his part to break the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is interesting that they focus this case mainly on failure to disclose...

MARTIN KADY: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... and did not bring any wider charges. They made a point of saying a bribery.

MARTIN KADY: Right. I mean, it's six charges, but that's -- six charges for each year -- it's seven charges, I'm sorry, for each year in which he did not put these gifts or these things of value from VECO into his financial disclosure form.

So we talked to lawyers who represented members of Congress who have pleaded guilty to bribery. And they said that this case will be tougher than the others. And maybe that's why Ted Stevens, who's known as a fighter, is going to stick it out. He's going to go to trial. It's going to be quite a spectacle in September.

Shockwaves in Alaska

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's turn to Mike Carey now in Alaska. How is all this being received in his home state?

MIKE CAREY, Anchorage Daily News: Well, it was something of a shock to have the indictment announced yesterday. People gathered around their television sets wanted to find out what was going on.

We all knew that he could be indicted, but there was a general feeling of, why did it happen today? And there was a widespread belief among the political class, totally erroneous, that the federal government wouldn't indict a sitting senator on the eve of a primary election. The primary election is Aug. 26.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say it was a shock, and yet the prosecutors say they've been investigating this for four years.

MIKE CAREY: Oh, yes. The investigation has been going on quite a long time. They raided Ted Stevens' home, very dramatic incidents and allegations have come out.

Mr. Bill Allen of VECO said he bribed Ben Stevens. He said this under oath in a trial here.

The surprise was the sudden -- we knew something could happen, but here, all of a sudden, it was real, alive, and it was on the front page, and it was all over television. That's different than contemplating it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, we've been describing Ted Stevens as a giant figure in Alaska politics. Help us understand what he does represent to the state.

MIKE CAREY: Well, first of all, Ted Stevens has been in Alaska public life for more than 50 years. He was the prosecuting attorney in Fairbanks, Alaska, the district attorney, when I was 9 years old. I'm getting Social Security. That's how long he's been around.

From there, he went to the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., and worked on statehood, played an important role in statehood, came back here, was in the legislature, ran for the U.S. Senate.

And there isn't a piece of major legislation or even lesser legislation affecting Alaska for 40 years that he hasn't had a hand in, not to mention the tens of millions, billions of dollars, really, he's brought home through his role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Stevens' prospects for winning

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, he's running for re-election, 84 years old, running for re-election. Tell us what the prospects are both in the Republican primary, which is coming up in less than a month, and then in the general election, where he faces a Democrat in opposition.

MIKE CAREY: OK. Yes, thank you very much. Actually, he's walking in the primary election. I saw him in Fairbanks in a celebratory parade there, walking the parade route, and was quite remarkable, because I can't remember other years when he did that. And clearly he felt that he needed to do that.

He's facing six Republicans in the August primary, most of whom are sort of protest candidates. There are a couple gentlemen who have some money. Dave Cuddy is an heir to a very important family here in Anchorage, a banking family, and he will have some money. He's run before.

But I think, generally speaking, the people who pay attention to politics here think that Stevens -- the voters, I mean, will sort of suck it up and vote for Ted Stevens who they've known for so long, the Republican voters, I should say, because it's a closed primary.

The general election is much different. Stevens' opponent, if he goes to the general election, is Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, a popular, young, vigorous Democrat, untainted by scandal, and the Democrats here are energized as they've never been before, including the Obama campaign, which I think is going to have more people working on the campaign than any Democratic presidential campaign in my lifetime. The Democrats feel it's their year.

Reactions from Stevens, his family

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike Carey, one other thing, you've known Ted Stevens for, in essence, decades, as you just said. What's your take on how he's handling all this, how he's taking it himself?

MIKE CAREY: Well, I know, personally -- first of all, we should note that he's a former prosecutor, so he knows what goes on in those rooms when the prosecution is discussed and what goes on before a grand jury.

And I think he's made it clear that this is extremely painful to him and to his family, whatever else the public may feel, and that he's 84 years old. He doesn't want this to be his legacy, but his history is as a fighter. He grew up in difficult circumstances in Indiana and Southern California. And if there's one thing his life has taught him, it's never give up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to come back to you, Martin Kady, for one last thing, and that is you wrote today that his colleagues in the Senate are receiving him warmly, but at the same time they're giving back or giving away a lot of money that he contributed to their campaigns.

MARTIN KADY: Yes, there's sort of a dual thing happening in the Senate. I saw him come into the chamber. We watched from the press gallery above. And he got the back slaps and the handshakes, and people sort of whispered in his ears and wished him luck, and it seemed clubby, and just like you expect the Senate to be.

But as the day unfolded, we kept get more announcements about Republican senators, starting with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, John Cornyn, another Republican leader, they were all returning his political action committee money.

So the message is, "We love you Ted" -- you know, his nickname is "Uncle Ted" -- "but we don't want your money in our campaign." John McCain also returned Ted Stevens' PAC money last night and donated it to a Flight 93 fund.

So there's an interesting dichotomy there. They say they want to support him, but they don't want his money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Trial scheduled to start in September. Martin Kady, thank you very much. Mike Carey, we appreciate it.