TOPICS > Politics

Longtime Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens Faces Criminal Charges

July 29, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving GOP member of the Senate, was indicted Tuesday on charges of making false statements about gifts he received. Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig discusses the investigation that led to Stevens' seven-count indictment.
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JIM LEHRER: The Ted Stevens case. With us to explain the charges and the background is Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post.

Carol, welcome.

CAROL LEONNIG, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: First, exactly what is it that Senator Stevens allegedly did?

CAROL LEONNIG: The allegations in the indictment say that for nine years Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful senators in Congress, concealed from the public and from his colleagues that he was receiving tens of thousands of dollars from an oil services company in Alaska, $250,000, and that he did not report it on his disclosure forms.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of gifts? Give us a feel for what they were.

CAROL LEONNIG: VECO is the name of the company. And the CEO, Bill Allen, and Ted Stevens are very close friends and have been for a long time.

The allegations are that Bill Allen, and his vice president, and several of his company officials basically helped renovate Ted Stevens’ chalet in a resort area in Alaska called Girdwood and near Mount Alyeska, a skiing resort.

They helped renovate it. They put a deck on it and that, in fact, there were other smaller things, such as when Ted Stevens mentioned that his daughter would like a new vehicle, Bill Allen traded the senator a ’64 Ford Mustang that the senator had for a brand-new Range Rover.

Indictment does not allege bribery

Carol Leonnig
The Washington Post
The larger probe was an Alaska public corruption probe, concern that the state legislature, where some members of that legislature in the Republican Party were so brazen, they were wearing caps describing their corruption.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the indictment says something about the fact that Senator Stevens was contacted by the folks from VECO, but the indictment does not allege that he did anything in return which would have constituted bribery. Am I right about that?

CAROL LEONNIG: You're absolutely right, Jim. What's alleged is a failure to disclose and concealing these gifts, which is very serious, but bribery is much more serious and much more difficult to prove.

That is, indeed, what prosecutors and investigators began investigating, concerns that the senator may have been receiving something of value in a quid pro quo, getting something from VECO in exchange for providing something for VECO, but that is not what is charged.

And that has, of course, caused a lot of discussion in Washington today about whether or not the prosecutors essentially just didn't have enough evidence to prove it or didn't believe that it occurred.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let's put this at a context. First of all, this investigation didn't come as a surprise. It's been public knowledge now since 2004, right, the general investigation?

CAROL LEONNIG: Yes, the larger probe was an Alaska public corruption probe, concern that the state legislature, where some members of that legislature in the Republican Party were so brazen, they were wearing caps describing their corruption, which I can't say on television, but it was a look at whether or not the state Senate had been sort of taken over by industry influences and whether or not they were seeking money from the industry in exchange for pushing legislation they wanted.

It began to look heavily at Ted Stevens' son, Ben Stevens, a state senator there. And Senator Stevens became embroiled after there became -- evidence came to light for investigators showing this renovation by VECO of this project.

JIM LEHRER: And there were various raids on the house, on various offices, and all kinds of records were obtained, correct?

CAROL LEONNIG: That's correct. And Senator Stevens actually disclosed to the Post last year that he'd been issued basically a request from the Department of Justice asking him not to destroy or tamper with any records, not suggesting he was, but just told him to preserve a series of records that had to do with his house, because they were under investigation.

Powerful senator faces imprisonment

Carol Leonnig
The Washington Post
If you look at Alaska and per person how much federal money in contracts, and procurement, and subsidies, and earmarks that go back to Alaska, there's more per capita in Alaska than any of the other states.

JIM LEHRER: All right, again, there are seven counts here. If it resulted in a conviction, what is the maximum time that he could get?

CAROL LEONNIG: Well, most failure to disclose charges come with a maximum penalty of five years. Now, there are nine -- I'm sorry, there are seven of them spread over nine years.

So, you know, depending on the judge, depending on the sentencing guidelines, it could be a significant amount of time. But I'm told by a lot of federal prosecutors who deal in this that the most likely thing is that it could be two to four years, if convicted.

JIM LEHRER: Now, he was not arrested. He has agreed just to turn himself in, correct?

CAROL LEONNIG: That's right. And that's very typical with any kind of white-collar case. I mean, any public corruption case, there's not an established risk to the community and no risk of flight.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, Senator Stevens has been in the United States Senate since 1968. Many of the stories today talk about how powerful he was, particularly as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, as he was when the Republicans were in control of the Senate, but he wasn't that well-known outside of the Senate and Washington. Explain that, please.

CAROL LEONNIG: He's quite an amazing figure. I mean, remember that he was first elected in 1968, so he's been here almost four decades.

But his power really derived from two things, one, a powerful seat as chairman, from '97 to 2004, I believe, of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He's responsible for doling out hundreds of millions of dollars and helping decide where the federal budget gets spent, most importantly in earmarks.

And if you look at some other data here at the Washington Post that we keep, if you look at Alaska and per person how much federal money in contracts, and procurement, and subsidies, and earmarks that go back to Alaska, there's more per capita in Alaska than any of the other states.

Stevens faces tough re-election bid

Carol Leonnig
The Washington Post
He's coasted back into office fairly easily the last several times, no real contention. This one, it's the first time he's been in any hot water. Again, he's beloved in his home state. He's beloved in the Senate. It's a very interesting time for him.

JIM LEHRER: The senator or his office issued a statement late this afternoon denying there was any wrongdoing of any kind. Is it your -- based on your reporting, the Washington Post's reporting that this is going to be a vigorously contested case, or has there already been some kind of negotiation between the senator's lawyers and the prosecutors?

CAROL LEONNIG: I'm sure there's been a lot of back-and-forth between the prosecutors and the defense lawyer, who's a gunslinger by reputation, very, very well-respected, well-known, Brendan Sullivan. I'm sure there's been a lot of back-and-forth in the last year.

However, I would expect a very contested fight to the finish over this, if only because of Brendan Sullivan's reputation and also Senator Stevens'. I mean, neither one of them are particularly known for backing down from a fight.

And as Senator Stevens highlighted in his own statement today, he says he never knowingly filed a false disclosure form. The trial or any charge, if it ever gets to that, which hinge on that "knowingly." Did he know that it was inaccurate? There are a lot of possible defenses for that.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. And that's the key word, as you say, "knowingly," right?

CAROL LEONNIG: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: And also, meanwhile, he is also running for re-election in November. We'll see what happens with that, as well. Any word on that?

CAROL LEONNIG: Well, it's his first true battle. I mean, he's coasted back into office fairly easily the last several times, no real contention. This one, it's the first time he's been in any hot water. Again, he's beloved in his home state. He's beloved in the Senate. It's a very interesting time for him.

JIM LEHRER: But he has strong opposition in the Republican primary and, again, a Democrat is waiting to take him on, as well, in November, correct?

CAROL LEONNIG: Correct, the Anchorage mayor.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Carol Leonnig, thanks, as always.

CAROL LEONNIG: Thank you.