The criminal charges against Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, accused of filing false financial reports to obscure hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations, do not violate constitutionally protected legislative activity, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in dismissing an attack on the indictment.
Williams & Connolly lawyers, representing Stevens, argued in briefs and in court this month to Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that government prosecutors improperly pitched protected legislative activity to grand jurors. Stevens, indicted on seven felony counts in July, has requested a speedy trial in the hope to clear his name before the November general election.
The Constitution’s speech or debate clause protects lawmakers from prosecution rooted in legislative activity. The scope of that protection, attorneys in the white collar criminal defense bar say, is narrow and centered largely in drafting, debating, and voting on legislation. Run-of-the-mill constituent services—for instance, the steps leading up to a vote—are not protected, government lawyers say.
Government prosecutors say Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, wrote letters and made calls on behalf of employees of VECO, the former Alaska-based oil services company. Stevens reportedly vowed to take steps to expedite the review and permitting process for a gas pipeline in Alaska. Former VECO employees are expected to testify against Stevens at trial.
Justice Department prosecutors, led by Brenda Morris, the principal deputy chief in the Public Integrity Section, say the government made an effort not to cross the line and introduce protected legislative activity. Prosecutors argue the evidence is central to the case and goes to motive and intent in showing that Stevens had reason to hide or otherwise fail to report the receipt of gifts and other items from VECO.
Williams & Connolly lawyers, including Brendan Sullivan Jr., argue the information is unrelated to the government’s case and will be prejudicial. The defense lawyers say the government wants to infer a this-for-that exchange when such an arrangement was never in place. The defense team has a chance to appeal Judge Sullivan’s order. Brendan Sullivan, lead counsel, could not be reached for comment. A status conference is set for Thursday morning. The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 22 with jury selection.