Stevens Heads to Court

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:44pm

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court today on charges that he has repeatedly falsified financial disclosures.

In a seven-count indictment announced Tuesday, the Alaskan is accused of submitting false disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts over an eight-year period.

Stevens, who has vehemently denied wrongdoing, is expected to enter a plea of not guilty.

The Justice Department has routinely charged lawmakers with violations of the 1978 law requiring financial disclosures — beginning in 1984 with then-Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho), who fought the case to the Supreme Court but ultimately lost and served a five-month prison term. But legal experts said Wednesday it is unusual to see an indictment based solely on those accusations, which are commonly seen in conjunction with allegations of bribery or other misconduct.

“If you have evidence of public corruption that involves receiving financial benefit, it would be a rare thing indeed to find a Member properly disclosed it,” said attorney Lee Blalack, who participated in the defense for former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who pleaded guilty in November 2005 to accepting bribes and is now serving an eight-year prison term.

“In the range of public corruption offenses that you typically see out there, this is modest by comparison,” Blalack said. But Blalack, as well as other legal experts, emphasized that the charge is a serious felony that carries a sentence of up to five years for each count.

Although the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section would prefer to seek charges of bribery or illegal gratuity — a gift made to officials because of their office, but not directly tied to a specific official action — in a corruption case, several defense attorneys, some of whom asked not to speak on the record, said those accusations can be much more difficult to prove in court.

Justice Department officials emphasized Tuesday that Stevens has not been charged with bribery, although the indictment states that the Senator “received and accepted solicitations for multiple official actions.”

Although unlikely, Jensen Barber, a federal criminal defense lawyer who has represented Congressmen and staffers, also noted government prosecutors could attempt to add to the charges against Stevens.

“The government can go back and supercede this indictment,” Barber said.

The indictment stems from an ongoing federal investigation into state and federal corruption in Alaska that has netted seven criminal convictions to date.

But Blalack questioned whether government attorneys are likely to do so.

“It would be odd for the Justice Department to conduct a three-year grand jury investigation … and decide they’ll start with something small and work up to something bigger later,” he said, but added he would not rule out such a scenario.

Stevens, the longest-serving GOP Senator, becomes the 10th sitting Senator to be indicted, and the first since 1983 when then-Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) was charged with filing fraudulent claims with the Senate for the reimbursement of nearly $4,000 in lodging expenses.

Durenberger eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to probation and a $1,000 fine.

The previous year, then-Sen. Harrison Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the ABSCAM scandal on charges including conspiracy, bribery and criminal gratuity.

A decade earlier in 1974, Sen. Edward Gurney (R-Fla.) was indicted on multiple counts of bribery and was later acquitted, although he resigned from Congress.

Among the 10 Senate lawmakers indicted while in office since 1803, four Members were either found not guilty or acquitted, four were convicted in court — although the Supreme Court later overturned a conviction in the case of former Sen. Truman Newberry (R-Mich.) — and only Durenberger pleaded guilty.