WASHINGTON - The indictment of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska on corruption charges throws into question his grip on a Senate seat he has held for decades and offers Democrats a chance to strengthen their hold on Congress.
Stevens, 84, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and a towering figure in Alaska's political history, was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury here on charges of concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from one of the state's most powerful employers. The indictment accuses him of accepting more than $250,000 in improvements to his Alaska home and other gifts, ranging from a gas grill to a Land Rover, from VECO Corp., an oil-field services company.
"It saddens me to learn that these charges have been brought against me," Stevens said in a statement in which he denied that he ever "knowingly" submitted a false disclosure form. "I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that."
Stevens said he had relinquished his post as senior Republican on several congressional committees, in accordance with Senate Republican rules requiring a member indicted on a felony to give up leadership posts.
Stevens has served in the Senate since 1968 and has held some of its most powerful positions, including chairmanships of the Appropriations and Commerce committees. He is legendary for bringing home federal dollars to Alaska; the Anchorage Daily News once wrote that Stevens was "the second-largest engine of the Alaska economy." Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog group, says Stevens sponsored 1,452 pork-barrel projects worth $3.4 billion between 1995 and this year, making Alaska the No. 1 state in pork per capita every year since 1999.
The indictment casts a shadow over Stevens' political future. He is up for re-election, and news reports questioning his ethics have done considerable damage to his political standing. Alaska has not elected a Democratic senator for a generation. But even before Stevens was indicted, polls showed him trailing his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Stevens' defeat would be a big notch in the belt of Democrats hoping to expand a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate. Some analysts wonder if Stevens will quit his bid for re-election rather than risk the loss of his seat to Democrats. Several Republicans are running against Stevens in the GOP primary Aug. 26.
Reaction to the indictment was muted yesterday on Capitol Hill, where the Justice Department has been conducting a number of corruption investigations.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and the Senate's majority whip, described the mood among Democrats as "somber" and added that his caucus was thinking of Stevens and his family. "I believe in the presumption of innocence," Durbin added. "At this point, we should just let the courts do their work."
Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, appeared alone before reporters at a briefing usually attended by most of the GOP leadership. He appeared grim. .
Stevens is charged with seven counts of making false statements on his financial disclosure forms for 2001 to 2006. The Ethics in Government Act requires lawmakers to disclose gifts over a specific monetary amount as well as liabilities in excess of $10,000.
Richard B. Schmitt and Janet Hook write for the Los Angeles Times.