WASHINGTON – Sen. Ted Stevens pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal corruption charges that allege he falsified Senate documents to cover up roughly $250,000 gifts from a powerful Alaska oil contractor, and he will likely face trial in September.
Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, was indicted this week on seven counts of lying on Senate disclosure forms about a major renovation to his ski-community house and other items.
Click here to read the federal indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens (.pdf).
In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday, Stevens appeared relaxed in court and joked with reporters, maintaining his air of innocence: He has said he never knowingly falsified forms.
Stevens lawyer Brendan Sullivan entered a plea of not guilty on the senator's behalf, and asked for the trial to take place quickly, by October. The timeline would end court proceedings before the November elections, when Stevens is expected to face a tough challenge in his bid for re-election.
Sullivan also requested a change of venue to move the proceedings to Alaska. He argued that is where most of the case witnesses live, although the push is not expected to be successful.
Brenda Morris, lead prosecutor for the government, said the government would not object to an October trial, but said the Justice Department already has made arrangements to move witnesses from Alaska to Washington.
Responding to questions from Judge Emmet Sullivan, Morris said the government could try the case as early as Sept 22. Morris said she expects a three-week trial. The court continued working on scheduling after a short recess.
In the end, the court set a tentative date of Sept. 24. Judge Sulliven said he would rule on the change of venue request by mid-August.
The government has asked that Stevens to turn in his passport to the court, but otherwise recommends he remain free pending trial.
Stevens did not talk to reporters on his way out of the court.
Earlier, Stevens had been scheduled Thursday to appear at a pretrial services office to be interviewed by court officials but, under an unusual arrangement, he arrived for that meeting Wednesday afternoon, avoiding the media attention.
U.S. Marshal George Walsh, whose office is in charge of booking defendants, said he was unaware of the arrangement until Thursday and was disappointed that it would appear Stevens received special treatment.
Court spokeswoman Jenna Gatski said Stevens made an early appointment with a pretrial services officer. Though a judge's order called for Stevens to appear for that meeting Thursday, Gatski said the pretrial office sets its own schedule. Stevens appeared late Wednesday afternoon but within business hours.
The indictment is a blow to the senator's re-election bid. Once a seemingly invincible political figure, he now faces both Democratic and Republican challengers who hope his legal woes make him vulnerable.
Some GOP colleagues have distanced themselves from Stevens. A spokeswoman for John McCain's presidential campaign said Wednesday that the indictment was a "sad reminder" that the next president will have to work to rebuild the public's trust.
Nicolle Wallace said McCain and Stevens famously clashed over the appropriation process. McCain regularly says on the presidential campaign trail that appropriations are subject to corruption that causes voters to lose faith in government.
Stevens has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and his campaign has pledged that Stevens will press on with his re-election race.
He would have to ask Judge Sullivan for permission to travel. Stevens was expected to remain free while he campaigns and attends to Senate business, but Sullivan was to decide what rules the senator must abide by while he awaits trial.
Stevens, 84, is accused of concealing more than $250,000 in gifts and home remodeling services he received from VECO Corp., a once powerful contracting firm. Two top VECO executives have pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers. The executives cooperated with the FBI and provided information about Stevens.
If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each of seven counts.
The indictment stops short, however, of charging Stevens with bribery or other traditional corruption charges. Despite winning cooperation from the VECO executives and searching the senator's home, the Justice Department said it could not prove a this-for-that corruption case.
His indictment is the culmination of an FBI investigation that for years has sent tremors through Alaska's political system. Several state lawmakers have been charged and others, including Stevens' son, Ben, remain under scrutiny.
FOX News' Ian McCaleb and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.