Stevens Relinquishes Ranking Panel Posts
UPDATE 5 PM: Stevens has released a statement declaring his innocence:
I have proudly served this nation and Alaska for over 50 years. My public service began when I served in World War II. It saddens me to learn that these charges have been brought against me. I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. Senator.
In accordance with Senate Republican Conference rules, I have temporarily relinquished my vice-chairmanship and ranking positions until I am absolved of these charges.
The impact of these charges on my family disturbs me greatly.
I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that.
ORIGINAL POST: The announcement less than three hours ago that iconic Sen. Ted Stevens (R) has been indicted on federal charges has sent shock waves through the Senate, but most of his colleagues have been guarded in their reactions to the news.
Stevens is stepping down from his posts as the ranking Republican on the the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense. Senate GOP Conference rules require lawmakers who have been indicted on felony charges to relinquish their chairmanships or ranking member positions.
As reporters hustled through the hallways looking for senators to pin down on the subject, a few lawmakers called the news "sad" and others reminded that the Alaskan hadn't been convicted of anything yet. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did both.
"It's a sad day for him, and for us, but you know I believe in the American system of justice so he's presumed innocent," Reid said.
As for whether Stevens should be removed altogether from his two committees, Reid said that would be up to Republicans. But the Majority Leader did helpfully remind reporters that the GOP "acted very quickly" to punish Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges following an incident in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
As for the Senate Ethics Committee, panel Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) declined to comment, but did say the committee would put out a statement later. The indictment of Stevens centers on his alleged failure to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts on his Senate financial disclosure forms, so there is a ripe opportunity for the ethics panel to examine whether Stevens broke the chamber's rules. But based on precedent, the committee is most likely to defer any investigative action until the Justice Department is finished with the criminal case.
C. Simon Davidson, a lawyer specializing in congressional ethics issues at McGuireWoods, said that the Stevens case was highly unusual in that the "sole basis for the indictment is that his financial disclosure forms are false."
Normally in bribery cases, Davidson said, "you need a gift linked to an official act, and its that link that's usually hard for prosecutors to prove. But they're just skipping that link" in the Stevens case.
As a result, while the indictment does lay out alleged favors Stevens did for Veco Corp., such evidence won't be necessary to obtain a conviction on the charges. "All they have to establish is that his form was false and he knew it was false," Davidson said,
He added that a successful conviction would have the effect of "criminalizing any gift that you don't disclose" and send a stark warning to other senators that they take care in filling out their disclosure forms accurately.
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