Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens pleaded not guilty to corruption charges Thursday and received an unusually speedy trial date, which he hopes will clear his name before voters consider re-electing him in November.
Stevens, a Capitol Hill bulldozer accustomed to winning political battles, wrangled control of the normally sluggish judicial process. The Senate's longest-serving Republican faces a tough re-election fight and made it clear Thursday that he does not want his seven-count indictment getting in the way.
"He'd like to clear his name before the election," attorney Brendan Sullivan told U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. Sullivan added: "This is not a complex case. It should be one that moves quickly."
The Justice Department accuses Stevens of lying on congressional disclosure documents about more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations he received over seven years from a powerful oil field services contractor.
Prosecutors said they had no problem going to trial swiftly.
"That is absolutely fine," said prosecutor Brenda K. Morris.
Judge Sullivan set a tentative Sept. 24 trial date.
"I understand why the senator would like to have this matter commenced and concluded before the elections, and by all indications, that is possible," the judge said.
Stevens wants trial moved to Alaska
Stevens, 84, also asked that the trial be moved from Washington to Alaska, where he has been a political figure since before statehood. He was named "Alaskan of the Century" in 1999 after unabashedly sending billions of dollars in federal money to the frontier state. The judge said he was not likely to send the case to Alaska.
Stevens wore a cream colored suit and a U.S. flag pin. In place of his trademark Incredible Hulk necktie — symbolizing his temper and reputation in the Senate — he wore a conservative blue and white tie. In court, he sat impassively and let his attorney do all the talking. He left without speaking to reporters.
Trials, especially public corruption trials, can take years to play out and seldom move this quickly. Sullivan, a $1,000-an-hour member of Washington's legal elite, said he has never asked for such a fast track.
"But I've never had a situation with a general election coming 98 days after an indictment," he said.
Stevens had been scheduled to appear at a pretrial services office earlier Thursday, to be interviewed by court officials but, under an unusual arrangement, he arrived for that meeting Wednesday afternoon, avoiding the media attention. U.S. Marshal George Walsh, whose office is in charge of booking defendants, said he was unaware of the arrangement until Thursday and was disappointed that it would appear Stevens received special treatment.
Court spokeswoman Jenna Gatski said Stevens made an early appointment with a pretrial services officer. Though a judge's order called for Stevens to appear for that meeting Thursday, Gatski said the pretrial office sets its own schedule. Stevens appeared late Wednesday afternoon but within business hours.
Republicans back away
Some Republican lawmakers — most notably presidential candidate Sen. John McCain — have distanced themselves from Stevens as the GOP gears up for November. Senate Democrats, who enjoy a 51-49 majority, want to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.
In Alaska, Stevens faces both Democratic and Republican challengers who are trying to capitalize on his legal woes. Democrats are counting on Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a popular figure in Alaska and a member of a well-known political family to keep Stevens from winning his seventh full term.
Stevens is accused of concealing his gifts from executives of VECO Corp., a once powerful contracting firm that used bribery and back room dealing to push favorable legislation and kill laws that were bad for the oil industry. Two executives have pleaded guilty, admitting they lavished money, gifts and campaign contributions on favored politicians and worked to keep their enemies at bay.
The former executives are cooperating with the FBI. One of them, Bill Allen, let agents tape his phone calls with the senator. The Justice Department said Thursday it has 500 gigabytes of evidence in the case, including wiretap conversations and hidden video.
The department stopped short, however, of charging Stevens with bribery or other traditional corruption charges. Despite winning cooperation from the VECO executives and searching the senator's home, prosecutors said they could not prove a this-for-that corruption case.
Stevens was booked by U.S. marshals during a break in court. He was released on bail and is free to travel inside the U.S. He was ordered to surrender his passport. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each of seven counts.
His indictment is the culmination of an FBI investigation that for years has sent tremors through Alaska's political system. Several state lawmakers have been charged and others, including Stevens' son, Ben, remain under scrutiny.