Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial--Day One

September 22, 2008

Washington, D.C.--Here we are at the beginning of the Ted Stevens trial.

United States of America v. Theodore F. Stevens, Criminal No. 08-CR-231 (EGS) is a big event with a bunch of unusual features. It's the first federal trial of a sitting U.S. Senator in more than 25 years, and the first in memory of such an important and influential politician right during his re-election campaign.

Having such a well-publicized trial in the nation’s capital in the last few weeks before the election is very rare, but the defendant has made a strategic decision that he needs an acquittal before November 4 to continue his 40-year career in the Senate.

And this is no ordinary U.S. Senator--this is Ted Stevens, who looms very large in Washington. He has been in the Senate since 1968—Lyndon B. Johnson was still President when Stevens started his Capitol Hill career. Ted Stevens is the longest-serving Republican U.S. Senator ever. His seniority and legislative skills have made him a Congressional heavyweight who was for years the superpowerful Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

As big a figure as Stevens is in the Senate, “Uncle Ted” is an even bigger deal in Alaska. Sen. Stevens has brought so many federal billions back to a young state with a thin economy that he has been named "Alaskan of the Century," and the state's biggest airport is named after him.

I should start this blog with describing myself. I’m a lifelong Alaskan, and I’ve lived there so long that the Last Frontier was still a territory when I was born. I’ve been a lawyer for more than 20 years, and have a private practice in Anchorage focusing on appeals, motions, and briefs. I used to be a prosecutor, and I handled approximately 30 jury trials in that role. Most of those trials were in my hometown of Anchorage, but I also prosecuted them in remote small communities like St. Paul, Unalaska, and Sand Point while serving as Assistant District Attorney for the State of Alaska.

Besides my experience in law, I have worked in positions that required a substantial understanding of Alaska politics. I served as the Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Revenue from 1987 through 1990. In that capacity, I served essentially as the State of Alaska's chief tax lobbyist in the successful effort in 1989 to revise the state's oil taxes in a way that increased revenues from the giant Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk fields. (This was the last major tax change approved by the Alaska Legislature until the famous events in 2006 that led to several indictments of legislators and others for taking bribes and other crimes—and another legislative session in 2007 that passed a new oil tax law untainted by bribery.)

I served as the principal legislative staff member working on Permanent Fund Dividend legislation in 1982 when the Dividend Alaska has today was created. I have also served as in-house and outside counsel for municipal governments in Alaska.

I was formerly a reporter with the Alaska Advocate statewide newspaper, and I have published historical articles on topics ranging from the Permanent Fund Dividend to newspapers' coverage of the capital move issue in Alaska.

I have been doing research for a book on the Alaska public corruption scandals uncovered by the current federal investigations and the resulting trials. To that end, I have observed most of the trials of the two state legislators so far tried—and convicted—in the corruption of state legislators during the 2006 consideration of oil taxes engineered by executives of VECO, an international oil-services corporation based in Alaska.

This federal investigation started at least four years ago and became public in August of 2006, when federal agents executed searches on the offices of six Alaska lawmakers. The ongoing federal investigation has produced the indictments of 11 people, and the feds have not lost yet.
The record is:
· three people convicted at trial—former State Reps. Pete Kott, Vic Kohring, and Tom Anderson (with the latter being convicted of crimes not involving VECO’s bribery regarding oil tax legislation)
· five people convicted pursuant to plea agreements—Jim Clark, former Chief of Staff to then-Gov. Frank Murkowski; former VECO CEO Bill Allen; former VECO Vice President Rick Smith; former lobbyist Bill Bobrick; and former private prisons magnate Bill Wiemar
· three people whose cases remain unadjudicated--former State Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch’s case is on hold pending a pre-trial appeal, State Sen. John Cowdery’s trial is pending—and then there is U.S. Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens is of course by far the most powerful and prominent people caught in the net by the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption. And I have some disclosures to make in writing about his trial.

I have known Ted Stevens all my life. My father—who passed away in 1998—was a good friend and political ally of Ted Stevens. The last time I spent any substantial time in Washington—which was in 1975—I lived in a college dormitory in a block of rooms with interns of Stevens' Senate office while researching my senior honors thesis that summer. I sometimes used space in Ted Stevens' Senate office during that summer while doing my research.

I have known Sen. Stevens to be intelligent and hardworking and the producer of many impressive achievements for Alaska over the past half-century. Those accomplishments include important roles in obtaining statehood for Alaska, passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and adoption of legislation that allowed the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. I also know that the charges against him—and the federal investigation into Alaska public corruption that generated them—raise critical questions about power and public office in Alaska. He has vehemently denied those charges, and that's why we are having a trial.

I flew in from Alaska (with a stop in Seattle) this afternoon, so my report on what happens at the trial this first day comes from my friend, former Alaskan Terry Gardiner. He attended the proceedings at my request, and he tells me that the first day was consumed by bureaucratic features of jury selection. He takes me to the nice daylight basement apartment he and his wife Linda have rented on Capitol Hill.

The home of the Capitol and the Supreme Court, this neighborhood is the American equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone. There are a lot of police officers—I estimate three cops per block. Despite Washington’s scary reputation, the heavy police presence makes Capitol Hill a very safe place in terms of street violence. As Terry points out, the biggest risk on Capitol Hill isn’t getting mugged—it’s getting hit by a car or tripping over one of the sometimes out-of-place bricks on the sidewalk.

While trodding carefully out of the Metro (subway) station, I see the first of my Washington celebrities right away, as nationally syndicated columnist and television commentator George F. Will passes us on the street.

Tomorrow questioning of potential jurors will start. The technical term is voir dire of the venire (which is the pool of all those called to be screened for service on this jury).

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