A federal judge has rejected a request from Sen. Ted Stevens' attorneys to move the Alaska Republican's trial to his home state so he can campaign for re-election while he faces charges that he lied about gifts he received from an oil company.
A federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted the 84-year-old Stevens last month for lying on financial disclosure forms he's required to file with the U.S. Senate, in effect alleging that he concealed $250,000 worth of gifts and renovations to his Girdwood, Alaska, home that were allegedly paid for by the now-defunct oil services firm VECO.
Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, entered a not guilty plea and the judge released him on his own recognizance. He has maintained a business-as-usual approach to campaigning but has relinquished leadership roles on the Senate Commerce Committee and the Appropriations Committee's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in keeping with Senate rules for indicted officials.
He did not appear in court for the change of venue hearing.
In anticipation of Wednesday's hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., Stevens' attorneys argued for the move in court documents, saying the "center of gravity" of the case lies in Alaska, that the gifts the senator allegedly received and all the key players in the case are in that state.
The monetary value of the renovations to Stevens' Girdwood, Alaska, home is "clearly in dispute," the lawyers wrote, noting that the defense team "intends to request that the court permit a jury visit to his Girdwood residence -- an option that obviously would not be convenient for a Washington, D.C., jury."
Additionally, "90 percent of the government's witnesses will be Alaska residents," the documents state.
In court, Stevens' lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., attempted to reinforce the argument that the travel needs of a Washington-based case would be both a logistical and financial burden because of the volume of witnesses, which attorneys estimate to be about 40 people.
"Witness location is very important," Sullivan said, holding up a large map of North America. "Alaska is 3,500 miles out there."
Court documents also noted that the indictment came down "a mere 28 days before the Alaskan primary election and only 98 days before the general election," which Stevens' defense counsel also mentioned in court.
"I have no understanding why this case could not have been brought after the election," Sullivan said in court.
The defense team had also written of concerns about Stevens' ability to be competitive in his re-election bid.
"Senator Stevens must be able to campaign, albeit limitedly, during the trial," they wrote. "Were venue transferred to Alaska, Senator Stevens would have the opportunity to campaign in the evenings and on weekends during the trial."
But prosecutors attempted to shoot down that argument in their own court filings, stating that Stevens' "pretrial campaign activities (as well as those of his opponents) could potentially taint a jury pool in Alaska."
Stevens will likely face Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, in the Nov. 4 election.
The government also said the alleged crime, that Stevens lied on his Senate disclosure forms, as well as some key related activities spelled out in the indictment, took place in Washington.
As for the logistical issues, the prosecutors said that many people involved in the case, such as the judge, his staff, attorneys and witnesses residing in Washington, would have to relocate to Alaska for the trial.
Even the senator would have to relocate, the prosecution claims. "Although Stevens maintains a residence in Alaska, there can be no legitimate dispute that for all practical purposes, defendant Stevens lives and works in the District of Columbia. His spouse is an attorney at a law firm in the District of Columbia, and the family owns a personal residence in the District of Columbia."
The court agreed to an expedited trial schedule in an attempt to wrap the trial up before the November election. Judge Emmet G. Sullivan set a September trial date, and the attorneys involved estimate they would need about a month total to present their cases.
"What we want is the earliest, fastest trial possible, [so] the result can be in before Election Day," attorney Sullivan said.
If convicted, Stevens could face a maximum of five years in prison for each of the seven felony charges.