Asserting he wants to put the accusations behind him before the November election, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) will go on trial in late September to battle charges that he repeatedly filed false financial statements concealing the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over an eight-year period.
The Alaska lawmaker appeared in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday for his arraignment, where his attorney, Brendan Sullivan, entered a plea of not guilty as Stevens stood silently beside him.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan agreed to set a prompt trial date just eight weeks after a federal grand jury indicted Stevens on Tuesday at Stevens request.
His attorney noted the indictment was issued 28 days before the Alaska primary and 98 days before the general election.
I do want to ask the court [for] consideration of the fact he would like to clear his name before the general election, Brendan Sullivan said, noting that the veteran lawmaker is seeking no special favors.
Federal prosecutor Brenda Morris agreed to the request: The government is certainly willing to accommodate the defendant as far as trial schedule.
The jury trial is slated to begin Sept. 24, although the judge noted that it could be delayed one to two days pending the status of an unrelated trial.
Even with a timely start, however, the trial faces a tight window of just under six weeks before Election Day on Nov. 4.
While Stevens attorneys estimated their defense will take just one week Brendan Sullivan suggested as many as 10 of the 40 to 50 witnesses expected to be called during the trial could testify each day Morris said the prosecution would require three weeks.
This is not a complex case, Brendan Sullivan said. It should be one that moves quickly.
He also requested a compressed discovery period for the case, and Morris said the government is prepared to provide Stevens counsel with most of its materials next week. The materials, including significant amounts of audio and video recordings, will largely be provided on a five-gigabyte hard drive, Morris said.
In the meantime, one legal expert suggested that it is unlikely Stevens would face additional charges before the trial date.
Unless new witnesses or evidence develop, this appears to have been fully investigated and it appears unlikely the government would supercede, said Joshua Hochberg, who has served as both chief of the Justice Departments Fraud Section and deputy chief of litigation for the departments Public Integrity Section.
Although not explicit policy, generally the government will bring the case when its ready to be brought. However, they normally try not to bring a case on the eve of an election for fear that their timing in and of itself is influencing the electoral process, added Hochberg, now a partner at the firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.
Despite the courts agreement for a prompt trial, Brendan Sullivan said he will nonetheless continue to pursue a motion to move the venue for the trial to Alaska, asserting a large number of the expected witnesses reside in the state.
Morris said the government would oppose the motion, stating: I think venue change is inappropriate. This is a false statements case.
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Aug. 19, but Emmet Sullivan hinted he did not favor the request.
I think venue is appropriate here, the judge said.
Standing trial in the District of Columbia in October could create a political obstacle for Stevens, however, since he would be missing prime campaign time in Alaska for the general election.
Democrats recruited a top-tier candidate, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, to run against Stevens. Recent polls show a tight race, but Begich often carries single-digit leads over Stevens.
Alaska pollster Marc Hellenthal, who performs surveys for Rep. Don Young (R- Alaska) and others, said Stevens push for an early trial date is a gamble: It probably means hes expecting to be vindicated and propelled to victory in the general election against Begich.
If he loses the trial, hes dead for sure, Hellenthal said. Alaskans, however much they love Ted, are not going to elect a convicted felon to the U.S. Senate.
According to state election law, a candidate must remove his or her name from the ballot 48 days before the general election and its up to the party to appoint a replacement. However, the trial is scheduled to start seven days after the Sept. 17 deadline to drop off the ballot, meaning Stevens will likely be on the general election ballot unless he decides to take himself off of it.
Thats the impression I get from the people I talk to, hes in it for the long haul, Hellenthal said. That presupposes that he wins the primary.
In the Aug. 26 primary, Stevens faces six GOP challengers. While none are considered to be top-tier candidates, at least two have put substantial amounts of their own funds into the race.
The stronger of the two self-funding candidates, businessman Dave Cuddy, has said hell put $1 million of his own money into the race. Cuddy ran and lost a primary against Stevens in 1996. Also, attorney Vic Vickers has pledged to put $700,000 of his own funds into his primary bid.
However the two wealthy candidates could divide the anti-Stevens vote, giving the senior Republican Senator a shot at the general election.
In the meantime, Stevens was released on his own recognizance Thursday, although he was forced to turn over his passport to the court. Stevens will still be allowed to leave the country, however, on official business.
The Senator, dressed in a light gray suit, arrived at the courthouse located just a few blocks from the Capitol 40 minutes ahead of his scheduled arraignment. Although he conferred with his attorneys, he said almost nothing during the hearing and afterward immediately exited the building to a waiting car without comment.
Government prosecutors said that as of Thursday, Stevens has not been offered a plea agreement.
There are no plea offers available at this time, Morris said.