The Ill-Timed Trial of Senator Stevens of Alaska
WASHINGTON — In a year of mesmerizing political scenes, one of the most remarkable will begin to play out next week just down Constitution Avenue from the Capitol.
Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who as the longest serving Republican senator has prowled the corridors of Congress since 1968, will go on trial in federal court on charges of failing to disclose $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from a politically connected oil services company.
What makes the proceedings so astounding is not just that Mr. Stevens is a figure of outsize proportions in Alaska and the Senate. Or that the gifts came from a company headed by a longtime friend of Mr. Stevens at a time when the relationship between federal officials and the oil industry is under scrutiny. Or that his state, usually an afterthought in national elections, is now at the center of America's political conversation because of the selection of Alaska's little-known governor for the Republican presidential ticket. Or that he is the king of earmarks when such spending is itself on trial on the campaign trail.
No, on top of all that, the criminal proceedings will start about 40 days before Alaska's voters must decide whether Mr. Stevens, 84, merits a seventh full term. His trial, near enough to the Senate so that he can excuse himself from the defense table to go cast votes if necessary, will substitute for his campaign in the closing weeks of the race.
"The verdict will essentially be the election," said Jennifer Duffy, a nonpartisan analyst for the Cook Political Report.
In the view of Ms. Duffy and other experts on congressional elections, Mr. Stevens, who is locked in a very competitive race with Mark Begich, his Democratic opponent, can still prevail if he is able to win the case, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday. A guilty verdict could end his rather amazing political career.
In the meantime, Mr. Stevens is going to have to count on television advertising, video links and surrogates in his re-election fight because the trial is going to keep him in Washington and off the campaign trail for at least the next month.
Though a number of House members have gone before the dock recently, criminal charges against sitting United States senators are rare. According to the Senate Historical Office, Mr. Stevens is the 11th to have been indicted. Of those, four senators have been convicted.
The first was John Smith, an Ohio Republican, who was accused of conspiring with Vice President Aaron Burr to commit treason. He was found not guilty, and the Senate fell just one vote short of expelling him, though he resigned his seat at his state's request in 1808.
The last to go through a full trial was Senator Harrison A. Williams, Democrat of New Jersey, who was convicted of bribery and conspiracy in 1981 and faced certain expulsion by the Senate before he resigned and served nearly two years in prison.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, was indicted for official misconduct by a state court in Texas in 1993, but she was ordered acquitted in 1994 as her trial opened and the prosecutor essentially folded his case.
Through the years, a handful of other senators have faced charges for such things as taking bribes in exchange for a postmaster's position or pressing claims in return for money. But the Stevens case appears unique, with such a prominent senator trying to win an acquittal on the eve of the election.
As some Senate Republicans eye the prospects of national attention being focused on the case next week, some of them are understandably nervous, since the notoriety surrounding Mr. Stevens could rub off on other Republican candidates facing re-election in a tough year. It might also remind voters that two other Republican senators got in a bit of trouble recently — Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a sex sting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who was named as a customer of an escort service that the police said was a prostitution front.
The political fortunes of Mr. Stevens have taken a bit of an upward turn lately as his poll numbers have improved, though Mr. Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, still leads in surveys and has strong party backing from Washington. Some of the Stevens bump has been attributed to the decision by Senator John McCain to add Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to his ticket.
With the media spotlight shining brightly on Ms. Palin, Mr. Stevens may be benefitting from the perception among some voters in Alaska that the media and the Washington establishment are picking on Ms. Palin and by extension her state and its other political figures.
Mr. Stevens has said he did nothing wrong and is asking Alaskan voters to give him the benefit of the doubt after a career spent funneling tens of billions of dollars back home, work that earned him the nickname "Uncle Ted" and saw the federal dollars labeled "Stevens money." But he first has to persuade a District of Columbia jury that he broke no laws.
Given the odd circumstances, it is impossible to predict how things will shake out. But there is one possibility that would ultimately leave his fate in the hands of his colleagues — an unsettling prospect for some. Mr. Stevens could be convicted and still win re-election. Should he chose to try to remain in the Senate, his colleagues, including lawmakers who have worked with him for decades, would then have to decide whether to try to expel him.
Or it may never get to that.
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