WASHINGTON – Since before statehood, Ted Stevens has believed in Alaska. In a Senate career has that spanned five decades, he has championed Alaska's oil and fishing industries and delivered billions of dollars to its cities and far-flung villages.
Now, as he prepares to stand trial in the midst of a contentious re-election fight, "Uncle Ted" is asking Alaska to believe in him.
"Alaskans work on the basis of faith. I have faith in them and they have faith in me," said Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican. "If they have faith in me, this is just another bump in the road."
Stevens is charged with lying about receiving more than $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from an oil contractor. Jury selection begins Monday in a case that could determine his political future as well as his legacy.
He is hoping for a verdict before Election Day, which is Nov. 4, that will propel him to his seventh full term in the Senate — and does not appear to be contemplating any other outcome.
"I believe I've done nothing wrong. I have faith that I've done nothing wrong and that's something the Alaskan people understand," he said.
Political observers expect a close race between Stevens and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. Some voters are fed up with what they see as a wave of corruption in their state. Some are standing by their senator. Others are waiting to see what happens in court.
"There's a kind of long-standing respect and gratitude for the man that exceeds in force the disappointment they feel that this has come to pass," said James Muller, a political scientist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage who has supported Stevens. "There's some disbelief that he would have intentionally done something dishonest or wrong."
Stevens is charged with making false statements on Senate financial forms. But the case runs much deeper.
The Justice Department plans to describe a longtime relationship between Stevens and Bill Allen, found of VECO Corp., an oil pipeline services company now owned by Denver-based CH2M Hill. Allen showered Stevens with gifts, prosecutors say, including a renovation project that lifted Stevens' Alaska house on stilts so a new first floor could be built under it.
When Allen needed help securing business or navigating Washington's bureaucracy, prosecutors say he called Stevens.
Stevens' defense lawyers say that sounds like a bribery charge and they say the government is trying to hint at such corruption without actually having to prove it. They want to keep the case focused on what they see as a paperwork violation.
A key to the defense is that Stevens paid for much of the renovation and believed he was paying for all of it. Prosecutors must show that Stevens knowingly lied when he filled out his financial forms.
If not for the FBI investigation, it would have been unimaginable that Stevens would face a serious electoral challenge. But Begich is running a strong race with the support of Senate Democrats who sense an opportunity to seize a longtime Republican seat.
Begich can capitalize on Stevens' trial with aggressive campaigning in the coming weeks. Stevens, meanwhile, will be tethered to a Washington courtroom while the trial makes headlines. If the Justice Department makes its case in the court of public opinion, Stevens could be out of a job even if he escapes conviction. That is why he's urging voters to be patient.
"There's going to be a period of time when people have questions," he said. "When we get to our side, those questions will be answered."
Alaska Republican pollster David Dittman said he does not see how Stevens can lose on Election Day if the senator prevails in court before Alaskans vote. Stevens would return to Alaska having won a fight for his political life.
If Stevens can portray the case solely as a paperwork violation, Dittman said he might win re-election even if he is convicted, thanks to his lengthy record of delivering for Alaska.
"They might say, 'We can't afford to give that up because of paperwork mistakes,"' Dittman said. "If it is a case of paperwork, I think there's a very good chance he would win."
That result would create the unusual situation in which Stevens, if he did not step down, could face expulsion by his Senate colleagues. It would take a two-thirds vote to kick him out of the Senate — a punishment that has not happened in 146 years.
With all that looms ahead in the coming weeks, Stevens isn't running scared. He's running hard.
Ask about the difficulty of being on trial in the midst of a re-election, and Stevens talks about it as if he is stuck in an inconveniently scheduled business meeting. He will try to campaign on weekends, he says. Alaska voters understand.
EDWARD SULLIVAN: Sullivan has been part of the trial team that won convictions of several Alaska lawmakers caught up in the corruption scandal. The Public Integrity team is also joined by two federal prosecutors from Alaska, James Goeke and Joseph Bottini.
EMMET G. SULLIVAN: A longtime judge in federal and municipal courtrooms, Sullivan has been named to the bench by presidents of both parties. President Reagan named him to Washington's Superior Court in 1991. The first President Bush appointed him to the city's appeals court in 1991. President Clinton named him to the federal bench in 1994.
THE KEY WITNESS:
BILL ALLEN: Allen is the founder of VECO Corp., the once-powerful Alaska oil services company that is now owned by Denver-based CH2M Hill. Allen has pleaded guilty, admitting that he and his vice president, Rick Smith, bribed state lawmakers to push for oil-friendly legislation. Allen and Stevens were friends, and Allen is expected to testify that he provided numerous favors for Stevens. Allen has suffered from speech problems since a 2001 motorcycle accident and, in previous court appearances, has sometimes appeared slow to understand and answer questions.