Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican in US history, was convicted yesterday of violating federal ethics laws for failing to report tens of thousands of dollars in gifts he received from friends. A jury in Washington, D.C. found Stevens guilty on seven felony counts, each with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The 84-year-old Stevens is one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress and is the first sitting US senator to go on trial in more than two decades. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican senator in US history, was convicted yesterday of violating federal ethics laws for failing to report tens of thousands of dollars in gifts he received from friends. A jury in Washington, D.C. found Stevens guilty on seven felony counts, each with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The eighty-four-year-old senator is one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress and is the first sitting US senator to go on trial in more than two decades.
The guilty verdict comes almost exactly a week before Alaska voters decide whether to re-elect him for a seventh full term. In a statement issued by his office, Stevens vowed to fight for re-election and maintained his innocence, saying, "This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial." Stevens will remain on the ballot and is engaged in a tight race against Anchorage’s Democratic mayor, Mark Begich. But given his criminal status, it’s unclear whether Stevens will even be able to vote for himself. Under Alaska law, felons whose crimes involve "moral turpitude" cannot vote.
If Stevens wins, he would be the first convicted US senator ever elected. Tradition allows him to exhaust his appeals before the ethics committee would begin expulsion hearings. It takes sixty-seven votes to expel a senator.
Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has declined to endorse Stevens and issued a statement that said, "I’m confident Senator Stevens will do what’s right for the people of Alaska."
Stevens has been a major figure in Alaska for more than four decades. He helped promote statehood when he was a young Interior Department official in the Eisenhower administration and has brought home billions of dollars in federal aid during his forty-year career in the Senate.
Richard Mauer is a reporter with the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been covering politics in Alaska for a quarter of a century. He joins us on the phone from Washington, D.C.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Richard Mauer. Talk about the significance of this case. Exactly what did the jury find that Senator Stevens did wrong?
RICHARD MAUER: Hi, Amy. You make me sound as old as Ted Stevens almost.
The jury said that they agree with the government’s charges that Senator Stevens had failed to report multiple gifts that he received over a period from the year 2001 — actually, 2000 to 2006. The biggest single chunk was the remodeling of his home in Girdwood, Alaska, about forty miles from Anchorage, where this company VECO, which is an oil field services company, basically doubled the size of his home; they jacked the house up and put a new room underneath it, a new level underneath it. So, that was the main charges.
But, I mean, there were other things. The was this famous massage chair, where he got — some pals of his bought him a chair at Brookstone, $2,700 chair, had it delivered to his home in Washington, D.C. Senator Stevens profusely thanked them but then said that this chair was a loan and kept in his house as a loan from 2001. It’s still there. That led to a pretty famous exchange when Senator Stevens took the stand, and the prosecutor is grilling him on this, and he basically is saying, “No, no, no, that is a loan. That was a loan.” And she’s saying, “How could it possibly be a loan?” And really there was no explanation for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, it was Senator Stevens himself, wasn’t it, Richard, who wanted an early trial before the election?
RICHARD MAUER: That’s — yeah, that’s — he may have gambled twice and lost, in this case. The first gamble was deciding that he wanted to face the jury before he faced the voters, thinking that he would have an acquittal and say “overzealous prosecutors,” “a jury in Washington, D.C. decided that I was innocent, and so, return me to the Senate.” So he was hoping that there would be a positive verdict before the election.
The other thing that he may have gambled and lost was when he decided to take the stand and offered his wife also on the witness stand. And based on the verdict, it seems pretty clear that the jury believed, at least, that he was lying when he testified.
AMY GOODMAN: Is this a surprise? Did you expect this result, Richard Mauer?
RICHARD MAUER: Having covered the senator for a long time, no, I’m really not surprised. I think there’s somewhat of a history of nondisclosure on his part. And he doesn’t — when he took the stand, that was — I don’t know. I don’t know if that was his best strategy. He doesn’t make a — he’s not a very warm, fuzzy figure. He responded pretty sharply to questions from the prosecutor. I think that people did not relate to him as their grandfather or their father.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Senator Stevens’s history in Alaska? I mean, you say they didn’t relate to him as their father or grandfather, but isn’t he known as "Uncle"?
RICHARD MAUER: “Uncle Ted,” yeah. He is in Alaska; he certainly is not in Washington, D.C. And I think he really wanted — he clearly wanted a jury in Alaska. In fact, in that statement that you mentioned during the news there, one of the things he said, “Second, Alaskans should decide who our senator is; it should not be up to twelve people who have never been to Alaska to decide who represents us in Washington, D.C.” Clearly, Alaskans have a long view of Senator Stevens. He is “Uncle Ted.” He’s done very — he’s sort of seen somewhat as a cartoon figure in this country, at least from the last couple years with his Bridge to Nowhere, the internet being a series of tubes, all these kind of joking looks at Senator Stevens.
But, I mean, he has done a lot to help the quality of rural life in Alaska with bringing water and sewer to villages, native villages in remote Alaska that never had that. Communications, there used to be — when I got to Alaska in 1983, there was maybe one phone in the center of town. There was one washeteria, where people would come and shower. That would be the only source of water. No toilets. And largely through Senator Stevens, that has changed dramatically in the last twenty, twenty-five years. He’s been — as serving on the Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee on military appropriations, he has kept military bases in Alaska, and I think Alaskans generally appreciate that. As you said, he was a champion of statehood.
And while most of this country may not like the idea of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which people in Alaska call Anwar, it is a matter of faith in Alaska that people favor drilling. In fact, you know, the Anchorage Daily News, which I don’t know if — which recently endorsed Obama for president, has long been in favor of drilling for oil in the refuge. It’s clearly not a liberal-conservative issue. It’s really an economic issue in the state.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about that endorsement in a minute, but on Ted Stevens, the race that he is in right now, this very close race with the mayor of Anchorage, Begich, can you talk about who Begich is? And do you expect that he could win? Especially because Ted Stevens may not be able to vote for himself.
RICHARD MAUER: Well, I’m sure Senator Stevens will be able to vote for himself this stage of the game. Whether he can vote again in the next election, that’s another matter.
Mark Begich is the son of Nick Begich, kind of one of our political dynasties in the state of Alaska. We have a few, it seems like. The Ted Stevens dynasty seems to be ending. But Mark Begich is a very popular Democrat. He’s very middle-of-the-road on lots of issues. He, too, of course, favors drilling in the refuge, very strong — very — is not for gun control, all those big Alaska issues. But otherwise, he has many things in common with Democrats around the country. His father was Nick Begich, who was a long-term congressman from Alaska who vanished in a plane crash with Hale Boggs, and his body has never been found, the plane has never been found, in I think 1971.
AMY GOODMAN: Cokie Roberts’s father.
RICHARD MAUER: That was, yeah, Mark’s father. And that was — within a week or two after he disappeared, he ran in a race against Congress — against Don Young, who is our current congressman, and Begich, even though everyone knew he was dead, beat Young. That was kind of the famous start of Don Young’s career.
So, Mark comes from a pedigree. I think that prior to the conviction, prior to the trial, that Mark Begich probably had a very long shot of being elected. It seems like now, even though there will be plenty of people who will vote for Ted Stevens, I think that the chances are pretty good that Mark Begich would win.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s move on, Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News, to the Anchorage Daily News endorsement of Obama over McCain-Palin, significant here, of course, and also what Governor Palin’s relationship is with Ted Stevens.
RICHARD MAUER: I can’t really speak too much about the endorsement. That, of course, is done on the editorial side of the newspaper. I think that — I think the paper generally takes a pretty independent view of things and that the endorsement pretty — as it was written, pretty much says that — did not take into account Sarah Palin being on the ticket, but said that between — that the race should be looked at as a race between John McCain and Barack Obama, and given that contest, Barack Obama is the better person for the job, according to that editorial.
But what was your — sorry, what was your second part of that question?
AMY GOODMAN: The second part of the question was the relationship of Governor Palin to Ted Stevens, the 527, and what this means for her right now.
RICHARD MAUER: Well, Senator Stevens and Governor Palin never really had a very good relationship. When she — famously, when she came to that Governors Association meeting in February of this year, when she met John McCain, and that was kind of the thing that began her path to being his vice president, she did not meet anyone, she did not go out of her way to meet anyone from the state’s delegation in Washington. She didn’t meet Stevens. She didn’t meet Lisa Murkowski. She didn’t meet Don Young. And that was very much seen as a snub. I think, of the three of those, there’s been — they do see a need to talk to each other, so it’s not as cold or icy relationship like she has with Don Young, but he eventually supported her in her race for governor, but it was not — they did not really enjoy each other very much — each other’s company very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Though Palin did serve as director of the 527 Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service.
RICHARD MAUER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What was that?
RICHARD MAUER: That, I believe, is his — that was his PAC. But I’m not so sure that that really — that may have been her thinking ahead to her future political career. I don’t know that that was a ringing endorsement of Senator Ted Stevens.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Governor Palin’s future. If the McCain ticket does not prevail, the McCain-Palin ticket, where do you see her in Alaska politics? People talking about her being the most popular representative of the Republican Party, looking forward to 2012.
RICHARD MAUER: That was certainly the case before she was picked. Like you say, I’ve been in Washington covering the trial for the past five or six weeks. But so, I really don’t know what’s been — I only know from talking to friends and family and colleagues at the paper what’s been going on in Alaska.
But I have a feeling it’s not going to be the same honeymoon that she had before with either the voters or perhaps even the media. I think that many of — much of what we’ve discovered under this intense scrutiny of Governor Palin, you know, you have every news outlet has been scouring her record for — you know, since she was chosen. And it’s hard for anyone to withstand that kind of scrutiny. But certainly, we’ve discovered things that we had no idea about, and I think Alaska voters were pretty resentful about a couple things. I think many people still really like her. I don’t want to say that she’s in any kind of deep trouble. But there was some resentment that now the McCain campaign was deeply entrenched in the Alaska government and that that was inappropriate. So, even people who I know to be Sarah Palin supporters as governor were rather upset that the Governor had disappeared and in her place were McCain campaign people.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Mauer, I want to thank you very much for being with us, reporter with the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been covering politics in Alaska for twenty-five years, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. The Anchorage Daily News endorsed Obama over McCain, the Obama-Biden ticket over McCain-Palin for president and vice president of the United States.