Jury Selection Begins Today for Stevens

Posted September 19, 2008 at 6:28pm

The trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) is set to begin today with jury selection, marking the first time in more than 27 years that a sitting Senator will face a federal jury.

[IMGCAP(1)]Stevens is charged with seven counts of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts during an eight-year period from the now- defunct oil services firm VECO. He has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to the allegations.

After weeks of pretrial activity — during which Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected several motions to dismiss the case, including Stevens’ assertions that the indictment violated the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause — jury selection is scheduled to begin today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Sullivan said last week that he anticipates that process will end Tuesday, with opening arguments, likely lasting up to an hour for each side, expected to begin as early as Wednesday.

Stevens’ attorneys suggested as many as 40 people could be called to testify, while the evidence list could include 1,000 exhibits — including photographs of the Girdwood, Alaska, home that is the alleged nexus of much of the gifts, as well as audiotapes and medical records.

Still, attorneys for both sides have asserted the trial could be completed prior to the November elections.

Stevens, the longest-serving GOP Senator, criticized government attorneys for issuing his indictment shortly before the Alaska primary and close to the general elections, and sought the speedy trial in an effort to prove his innocence before Election Day.

He attempted unsuccessfully to have the trial moved to an Alaska federal courtroom.

It remains unclear whether the Alaska lawmaker will take the stand. Stevens’ attorneys and federal prosecutors exchanged witness lists earlier this month, but they were not required to file the documents with the court, so the lists are not publicly available.

Federal prosecutor Brenda Morris has stated that former VECO executive Bill Allen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges of bribery and corruption, will be called to testify. Allen has testified in two other trials that resulted from a federal investigation into state and federal corruption in Alaska that has netted eight convictions.

If convicted, Stevens could face up to five years on each count.

According to records maintained by the Senate Historian’s Office, since 1808, 11 Senators have been indicted and four convicted of crimes.

The last time a sitting Senator faced a state jury was in 1994, when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) went on trial over allegations that she misused her office as state treasurer to bolster her Senate campaign.

But in an unusual twist, a Travis County prosecutor refused to proceed with that trial after the judge declined to allow certain evidence to be introduced. Hutchison’s trial lasted only a few minutes before the judge ordered the jury to issue her acquittal.

Ex-Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) is the most recent Senator to be federally indicted while in office, after being accused of filing fraudulent claims for reimbursement of about $3,800 in lodging expenses.

Although the initial indictment was dismissed for violating the Speech or Debate Clause, Durenberger was indicted a second time and agreed to a plea deal on lesser misdemeanor charges. According to the Senate Historian, he served no jail time and paid a $1,000 fine.

The most recent Senator to face a federal jury, the late Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), was also the last Senator to serve jail time.

Williams spent 21 months in federal prison after his conviction in 1981 in connection with the ABSCAM scandal. Although the Senate Ethics panel voted to expel Williams, he resigned before the full chamber could approve the decision.