The New York Times

October 28, 2008

Alaska Senator Is Convicted of Ethics Breach in Gift Scheme


WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate’s history and a figure of enormous influence in his state, was found guilty on Monday of violating ethics laws for failing to report gifts and services that he was given by friends.

A federal jury of eight women and four men from the District of Columbia found that the 84-year-old Mr. Stevens, who has represented Alaska in the Senate for more than 40 years, knowingly failed to list on Senate disclosure forms the receipt of several gifts and tens of thousands of dollars worth of remodeling work on his home in Girdwood, Alaska.

The verdict came just eight days before the senator is to face re-election and after more than three weeks of testimony, the highlight of which was Mr. Stevens making the calculated risk of taking the witness stand in his own defense. As the verdict was announced, the senator remained composed and stared at the ceiling while his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, put his arm around him.

Just before the trial, the senator sounded defiant. “Put this down,” he told reporters. “I am not stepping down. I’m going to run through, and I’m going to win this election.” He did not signal whether the verdict had softened his stance, but he was heard to tell his wife, Catherine, afterward, “It’s not over yet.” The senator remains free on bail.

Mr. Stevens has long been tied to the rough-and-tumble history of his home state and wields outsized influence over federal spending. Government prosecutors used evidence and testimony to paint a picture in which several of Mr. Stevens’s wealthy Alaskan friends, keenly aware of his status as the dominant political figure in the state, were eager to shower him with gifts.

The indictment charged that he received some $250,000 worth from a longtime friend, Bill Allen, the owner of a huge oil-services construction company, as well as a sled dog, an expensive massage chair and other items from other friends.

Mr. Stevens’s defense was largely built on the notion that many of the goods and services he received were unasked for, and were things for which he had no use. In the case of the massage chair, he testified that it was not a gift from Bob Persons, a friend and restaurant owner, but rather a loan — even though the chair has remained in his Washington home for more than seven years and has been used by the senator.

Moreover, he asserted that his wife of 28 years, Catherine, and not he, oversaw the remaking of the Alaska home from a simple A-frame cabin into a grander two-story residence fitted with two decks, a new garage and amenities like a whirlpool, steam room and expensive gas grill.

Mr. Stevens is facing another jury, made up of Alaska’s voters, who will decide on Nov. 4 whether to return him to the Senate or elect a Democrat, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, to replace him. Political analysts had said that a conviction would make it highly unlikely that Mr. Stevens could win re-election.

Democrats have invested heavily in the Alaska race and have run television advertisements featuring excerpts from wiretaps and fictional F.B.I. agents.

Democrats now have a 51-to-49 margin in the Senate (counting two independents who usually vote with them), so the conviction of Mr. Stevens could have great importance politically. As a power on the Appropriations Committee, the senator has wielded wide influence, which he has used to steer money to his own state as well as to persuade other senators.

Before Democrats captured the Senate in the 2006 elections, Mr. Stevens, as president pro tem of the Senate, was third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and Speaker of the House.

Shortly after the verdict, the Alaska Democratic Party called on the senator to step down. “He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it anyway and lied to Alaskans about it,” Patti Higgins, the party chairwoman, said in a statement. “Alaskans deserve better from their public officials. It’s time for us to elect an ethical and honest senator who will move this state forward.” Mr. Stevens is certain to appeal the conviction, and his supporters are also likely to explore the possibility of obtaining a pardon from a fellow Republican, President George W. Bush, before Mr. Bush leaves office in January.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, has been a close friend of Mr. Stevens and expressed sorrow after the verdict. “I hope the people of Alaska continue to believe in Ted Stevens, to remember his contributions and to look upon him as a friend,” Mr. Inouye said in a statement issued in Honolulu. “He will continue to be my friend.”The maximum sentence on each of the felony charges is five years in prison, but federal sentencing guidelines could call for much less than that. Mr. Stevens will turn 85 on Nov. 18. Judge Emmet Sullivan did not set a date for sentencing, but said it would be after February. A senator can be expelled only by a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate, so a conviction does not automatically cost a lawmaker his seat. Since 1789, only 15 senators have been expelled, mostly for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War, according to the Senate Web site.

Should Mr. Stevens win re-election but then resign or be expelled, the Alaska governor, now Sarah Palin, would have to call a special election to fill the vacancy.

In 1982, the Senate Ethics Committee recommended that Senator Harrison J. Williams, Democrat of New Jersey, be expelled because of his conviction on bribery, conspiracy and conflict of interest charges in the Abscam scandal, and in 1995 the committee recommended the expulsion of Senator Robert W. Packwood, Republican of Oregon, for sexual misconduct. Both men resigned before the full Senate could vote. Mr. Williams was convicted of bribery and conspiracy and served 21 months in federal prison.

Deliberations in the Stevens case were sometimes tense as members of the panel complained about the behavior of one juror. On Monday morning, an alternate juror was seated to take the place of a member who had left because of a death in the family.

After Monday’s verdict, Judge Sullivan said all jurors had told him they did not want to speak to reporters. “They have asked to go home, and they are en route home,” he said.

David Stout contributed reporting.