Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens proudly testified in his own defense. But in the end, he did not convince the jury. And now the 84-year-old senator has to persuade Alaska voters to re-elect him even though he's been found guilty of lying about $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts from a wealthy oil contractor.
That election could have national implications. Democrats are driving to increase their power in the Senate. And Stevens' seat is one more that Republicans suddenly have to worry about.
Stevens rolled the dice and lost. He pressed for an early trial date, hoping he could go to the citizens of Alaska with a not-guilty verdict. He testified in his own defense, expecting that he could convince the jury that he never intentionally failed to disclose gifts with a value over the legal limit.
Instead, the jury convicted him after less than two-and-a-half days of deliberations. Even the removal of one juror Sunday night because of the death of her father, and the substitution of an alternate Monday morning, did not seem to slow down the jurors. By afternoon, they had a verdict.
The eight women and four men filed into the courtroom. The foreman stood and in a soft voice delivered the news: Guilty on all seven counts.
Stevens bowed his head slightly after the first verdict, then looked up again, showing no emotion. His wife sat in the front row, grimfaced. His daughter looked at her father. There were no tears.
Stevens To Fight 'Unjust Verdict'
Later, Stevens said, "I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have."
Outside the courthouse, acting Assistant Attorney General Matt Friedrich noted that the jury had found that Stevens filed false financial disclosure forms over a six-year period.
The monthlong trial revealed that employees for VECO Corp., an oil services company, transformed Stevens' modest mountain cabin into a modern, two-story home with wraparound porches, a sauna and a wine cellar.
"The evidence at trial showed that Sen. Stevens committed this crime to hide from the public and from his constituents the fact that he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars of freebies from an Alaska corporation and its chief executive officer," Friedrich said.
And, Friedrich said, Stevens accepted those gifts, including renovations on his home, at a time when the corporation and its chief executive officer were seeking the senator's assistance.
An Election Battle
Despite the verdict, Stevens remains on the ballot seeking an eighth term in the Senate. He is in a tight race with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, and is so beloved in the state he has represented for 40 years that he earned the nickname Uncle Ted.
But when he is sentenced early next year, the senator could be sent to prison. He faces a maximum of five years on each of the seven counts, though the sentencing guidelines call for far less time, and the judge has the discretion to suspend all jail time.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, Stevens said repeatedly that he would not resign his Senate seat. "I am not stepping down," he told reporters.
If he is re-elected, there is no Senate rule that would automatically force him out. He can be ousted only by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Once the seat is vacant, Alaska law would require a special election to replace him.
But that would be a long way off. If he is re-elected, his appeal would take months, and he might well seek a pardon from President Bush before the president leaves office.
The Senate Ethics Committee, by tradition, does not start expulsion proceedings until all appeals are exhausted. And in any event, Stevens' opponent is now favored to win the race.
Stevens Loses Some Republicans' Support
In a statement Monday, Stevens maintained his innocence and asked Alaskans and his Senate colleagues to stick with him until he clears his name. Fellow Republicans, however, immediately began jumping ship, starting with Alaska's governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Palin, widely seen as having national ambitions beyond this campaign, issued a statement saying the verdict "shines a light on the corrupting influence" of a big oil services company whose CEO gave many of the gifts to Stevens that the senator did not report.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, himself in a tight re-election race in Kentucky, similarly abandoned any loyalty to Stevens. "Sen. Stevens will be held accountable so the public trust can be restored," McConnell said.
And Nevada Sen. John Ensign, the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, "This is a reminder that no one is above the law."