Sen. Ted Stevens cannot move his corruption trial from Washington to his home state of Alaska, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in a decision that could hamstring the powerful Republican's re-election bid.
The patriarch of Alaska politics, Stevens could normally expect to coast to his seventh full term in the Senate. But Democrats want to capitalize on the lengthy FBI investigation and trial to capture the once-safe Republican seat.
Stevens, 84, had hoped to stand trial by day and campaign on nights and weekends. In a state where he is known as "Uncle Ted," he could have faced a more sympathetic jury. Stevens was named the Alaskan of the Century in 2000, the Anchorage airport bears his name, and he has brought billions in federal aid to the frontier state.
Wednesday's ruling puts a damper on his campaign plans. Stevens asked for, and received, an unusually speedy trial that he hopes will clear his name before voters go to the polls. But with the trial in Washington, Democrats will have the state largely to themselves while Stevens is tethered to a defense table in the weeks leading up to the November election.
"He must have decided it's more important to get a speedy trial than to have all those days free to campaign," said Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the race.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he would consider holding court only four days each week to make it easier for Stevens to fit in campaign trips to Alaska. But that could delay a verdict.
"We want the verdict as far on this side of Election Day as possible," defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, no relation.
Stevens did not attend the court hearing. He remained in Alaska, campaigning for next week's Republican primary.
He is charged with lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about hundreds of thousands of dollars in home renovations and other gifts he received from VECO Corp., an influential oil services contractor. Two VECO executives have pleaded guilty and admitted they bribed Alaska lawmakers, using gifts, jobs and cash to curry favor with allies and undermine their enemies.
His attorney indicated for the first time Wednesday that Stevens has known for years that he has been under FBI investigation. Brendan Sullivan said he agreed five times to extend the statute of limitations. Such deals allow FBI agents more time to investigate and give defense attorneys time to negotiate deals or persuade prosecutors not bring charges.
Never one to back down from a fight or walk away from an argument, Stevens has had to change his style while campaigning under indictment. He has been reluctant to talk about the investigation or the charges against him, even last week when prosecutors previewed some of the evidence they planned to use against him at trial.
"I've trained him well," Sullivan said Wednesday. "It's not easy with public figures."
Sullivan, the defense attorney, is rare among Washington's legal elite. He rarely defends his clients in public, even those whose reputations are on the line. Sullivan believes winning at trial is all that matters, and the $1,000-an-hour attorney said Wednesday that Stevens would not be so reserved at trial.
"A defendant is only a punching bag at this stage," Sullivan said. "We cannot even begin to fight back until they begin their case."