Stevens Could Put His Colleagues on the Spot

Posted November 5, 2008 at 6:53pm

Sen. Ted Stevens (R) appears poised to eke out a narrow re-election victory, forcing difficult decisions upon Senate leaders who have raised the specter of expelling the Alaska lawmaker following his felony convictions in federal court last month.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders called for Stevens to resign in the runup to Election Day — and threatened expulsion if the Senator refuses to comply — after a federal jury found Stevens guilty on seven counts of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over a six-year period.

But now Stevens, who has remained resolute about his innocence, may win a dual reprieve from voters.

In addition to returning the longest-serving Republican Senator to office, electing a convicted felon could dissuade Senate leaders from seeking Stevens’ ouster.

“The problem, I think, for the Senate — and in my view a serious constitutional issue — is given the voter condonation of his conduct, I think there are serious questions about whether they could expel him,” said Stan Brand, a former House general counsel and noted white-collar criminal attorney.

“It seems to me that’s a statement by the people of Alaska,” Brand added. “Under the case law there’s a heavy presumption — they’re entitled to have who they want.”

According to an October Congressional Research Service report, both the Senate and House have “expressed reticence to exercise the power of expulsion (but not censure) … when the electorate knew of the misconduct and still sent the Member to the Senate.”

While the Senate is expected to execute an ethics probe of Stevens — in recent weeks the Ethics Committee has declined to comment on whether it would initiate an investigation pending the election’s outcome — the timing remains uncertain.

Stevens is scheduled to return to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Feb. 25 to be sentenced, at which point he may begin the appeals process.

The Senate is not required to allow Stevens to exhaust his appeals before initiating its own investigation, however, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has demanded immediate action.

“As precedent shows us, Senator Stevens will face an ethics committee investigation and expulsion, regardless of his appeals process,” Reid said in a statement issued on Saturday. Reid’s office did not return a telephone call Wednesday, and it is not clear whether he would seek that probe in the November lame-duck session or in the 111th Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Lexington Herald-Leader in late October that Stevens “should resign immediately,” adding: “If he did not do that … there is a 100 percent certainty that he would be expelled from the Senate.”

In a subsequent statement to reporters provided by McConnell’s office, however, the Republican extended that timeline to include the appellate process, which could last for months or even years.

“If he is re-elected and the felony charge stands through the appeals process, there is zero chance that a Senator with a felony conviction would not be expelled from the Senate,” McConnell said.

But National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said Tuesday that he does not expect Stevens to last long in the Senate, noting that regardless of whether Stevens appeals his case an expulsion proceeding is almost certain.

“If Ted Stevens happens to get re-elected, I think he will be expelled,” Ensign said.

While the Senate could move ahead with an investigation — raising issues discussed in the trial that could potentially violate Senate rules including the use of his Congressional staff for personal business — and even opt to castigate Stevens with censure, ethics experts believe it is unlikely the chamber would do so if the ultimate goal is to expel the Senator.

Expulsion is a rarely used punishment in the Senate, with only 15 Members expelled since 1789, with all but one removed for their support of the Confederacy.

In the meantime, the Senate must nonetheless seat Stevens in the new Congress. But, whether he is allowed to serve on any committee is up to the Republican Conference, which could opt to strip Stevens of his assignments, although that appears unlikely to happen until early next year.

The Alaska Division of Elections reported Wednesday that Stevens held a slim 1.5-point lead over Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

“We look forward to the remaining ballots being counted,” Stevens campaign manager Mike Tibbles said. “It is almost mathematically impossible for Mark Begich to pull ahead if the trends from last night continue. We are confident that we will gain votes given that there is a decidedly Republican advantage to the absentee ballots not yet counted.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Begich congratulated Stevens on “a hard-fought race,” then added: “But he is in no position to declare victory. Let me be clear: This race is far from over.”

Begich said his campaign estimates as many as 60,000 ballots remain to be counted, including his own early voting ballot.

The outstanding votes including 40,000 absentee ballots, 9,000 early voting ballots and an undetermined number of questionable ballots that need to be counted, according to the Anchorage Daily News. That process could take two weeks.

Under Alaska election law, candidates can request a recount on the state’s tab if the final winning margin is less than one half of one point.

John Stanton and Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.