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Stevens' request to move trial to Alaska is denied

Senator's reelection campaigning could improperly influence potential jurors, a federal judge rules.

August 21, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal judge Wednesday denied Sen. Ted Stevens' request to move his corruption trial to his home state of Alaska, saying the lawmaker's plans to campaign for reelection risked improperly influencing potential jurors if the case were to be transferred there.

Lawyers for Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, sought the change because most of the 40 or so witnesses expected to testify are from Alaska. They said Stevens had a right to continue his reelection campaign, which would be easier if the trial was held in Alaska.

But U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said he was persuaded by the Justice Department's concerns that the publicity surrounding a senator who was running for reelection while on trial "could lead to a significant potential for jury tainting."

Stevens, 84, was charged last month with seven counts of making false statements on his Senate financial disclosure forms. Ethics rules require reporting of gifts over a specified monetary amount, and prosecutors contend that from 2000 to 2006 Stevens failed to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and other gifts from executives at VECO Corp., an oil field services company.

A federal corruption investigation has already led to convictions of several state officials in Alaska and two former VECO executives. Although Stevens was not charged with bribery, prosecutors allege that the long-standing Alaska senator took a number of actions that benefited the company, which is no longer in business, and its executives.

Stevens is seeking a seventh term and has requested an early trial date, saying he wanted to clear his name before the Nov. 4 general election. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Sept. 22. He is facing six challengers in Tuesday's Republican primary, and polls show him likely to win the nomination.

Federal court rules give judges discretion to transfer cases to other districts "for the convenience of the parties and witnesses and in the interest of justice." Judges are permitted to consider an array of factors, including the location of the witnesses, defendants and lawyers, the effect on the defendants' business and the effect on the judges' caseload.

Unfurling a large map of North America, Stevens' lawyer Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. told the judge that the burden on potential witnesses was unprecedented.

"I believe this is the only case in the history of our republic where so many people have had to travel so far" to testify, the lawyer said. "Los Angeles is closer. London is about the same distance." Alaska is about 4,200 miles from Washington, he said, "if you drive it."

The lawyer dismissed concerns that Stevens' campaigning might improperly affect how potential jurors view the case and blamed the prosecution for creating the dilemma by its timing of the indictment.

"The defendant is only a punching bag at this stage," he said. "I don't know why this case has to be brought so soon before an election."

Justice Department attorney Nicholas Marsh said the case should not be moved because the alleged crime occurred in Washington. "I did not bring an atlas," Marsh said. "I brought a rule book."

Marsh insinuated that it was disingenuous for Stevens to complain that the trial would interfere with his campaign because the senator had requested a speedy trial. He also expressed concern that Stevens was already attempting to alter public opinion by discussing the case in interviews with reporters in Alaska.

Finding a judge to preside over the case in Alaska would further delay the proceedings, Marsh said. And the federal trial judges in Alaska -- all appointed while Stevens has been in the Senate -- would probably recuse themselves because of conflict-of-interest concerns, he said.

Judge Sullivan said he would consider adjourning court on Fridays to give Stevens three-day weekends for campaigning. He also said some witnesses could appear via video hookup if they were unable to travel.

The judge has not ruled on a separate motion by Stevens' lawyers to dismiss the indictment. The defense has contended that the case should be thrown out because only the Senate should have the power to enforce its own rules and that violating the rules is not a separate crime.

In a statement, Stevens said he had requested the venue change because "I wanted Alaskans to have a firsthand opportunity to learn the facts of this matter."

"I understand the court's decision today and continue to have every faith in the fairness of the American judicial system and the court's commitment to conduct a speedy trial," he said.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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