With 74,000 absentee, provisional and early-vote ballots yet to be counted, it may take weeks to determine whether Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has won re- election despite his conviction on seven felony counts of corruption related to his Senate financial disclosure forms.
Nonetheless, preparations need to be put in place to launch early next year a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into Stevens conduct to determine whether he should ultimately be expelled from the body.
Under rules of the Senate Republican Conference, Stevens was stripped of his ranking-member status on committees and subcommittees when he was indicted in July for failing to report receipt of thousands of dollars worth of home-remodeling services and gifts from an Alaska oil contractor.
Moreover, Senate Republican leaders commendably called for Stevens to resign from the Senate and not seek re-election even though it might have cost them his seat. Now, in view of Stevens refusal to follow that advice and his possible re- election, they are saying that if his conviction is upheld on appeal, he should be expelled.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement before the election that a convicted felon is not going to be able to serve in the Senate and faces an ethics investigation and expulsion regardless of the appeals process.
Stevens and his attorneys are pointing to historical precedents and court rulings holding that deference needs to be paid to the decision of voters when they re-elect a Member even after he has been indicted or convicted.
The controversy will be rendered moot, of course, if the full Alaska vote count results in Stevens defeat or if, having won the election, Stevens resigns. However, if he wins the election, he is constitutionally entitled to take his seat. Then, its up to the Senate to decide what to do about him.
Some Senator might offer an expulsion resolution on the floor, but it would require unanimous consent to be considered which Stevens could block. So the Senate Ethics Committee will be responsible for making a recommendation to the full Senate.
The committee should look not only into the unreported gifts and favors that led to Stevens conviction, but also to other ethical lapses such as the Senators admitted use of Senate staff to do personal chores.
Moreover, the committees rendering of a recommendation on censure or expulsion should not await the outcome of Stevens appeal, which could take years and is likely to center on issues of prosecutorial misconduct, not Stevens own activities.
The committee and the Senate should base its decision on whether Stevens received illegal gifts from VECO Corp. and its executives, and on what it learns from probing Stevens other questionable activities.
Only 15 Senators have ever been expelled from the Senate, 14 of them for disloyalty during the Civil War. In the past 30 years, two Senators facing certain expulsion resigned instead. As matters stand, Stevens could be in line to be No. 16.