WASHINGTON (AFP) — Veteran Republican lawmaker Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption, putting his once-secure US Senate seat in jeopardy and improving Democrats' chances of reaching the all-important political threshold of 60 seats in the chamber.
A US court on Monday found Stevens of Alaska, the longest serving Republican senator with some 40 years in the Senate, guilty of corruption one week before he is up for reelection in the narrowly-divided US Senate.
Stevens, 84, was convicted on all seven counts of making false statements on mandatory financial disclosure forms he filed between 1999 and 2006, a court source told AFP.
The Alaska senate seat, long considered safely Republican, now seems vulnerable: Democrats are banking on big gains in the Senate in the November 4 election, where five or six Republican seats in the 100 strong-chamber are likely to change hands.
The Democrats are hoping to hit the magic 60 seat-barrier needed to pass major legislation and break Republican filibuster legislation delaying tactics. They currently enjoy a 51-49 edge in the 100-seat Senate, with the help of two independents.
In recent opinion polls Stevens trailed his Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, by less than one percentage point.
Stevens was found guilty of accepting gifts from a company known as VECO, an Alaska-based firm which provides oil field support, between 1999 and 2006.
He was convicted of receiving more than 250,000 dollars worth of gifts, mainly in material and labor that doubled the size of one of his homes.
Two VECO executives pleaded guilty last year to bribing government officials, including an unnamed state senator.
At a press conference in Washington after the verdict, government prosecutor Matthew Friedrich, acting assistant attorney general at the US Department of Justice, said the case underscored the government's commitment "to hold elected officials accountable when they violate our laws."
But Stevens was unrepentant.
"This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial," the senator said in a statement, decrying alleged "repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct."
Said Stevens: "I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have. I am innocent."
He called on Alaskans and his Senate colleagues to "stand with me as I pursue my rights," adding: "I remain a candidate for the United States Senate."
Stevens, who has served in the US Senate since December 1968, is one of the body's most powerful Republicans, with seats on the Appropriations, Defense, and other committees. He has temporarily relinquished his committee vice chairmanships.
The charges normally carry a sentence of several years in prison, but Stevens is likely to get leniency due to his age.
Judge Emmet Sullivan, who presided in the case, has set a February 26 hearing, the source said.
The corruption trial began on September 22 and saw 24 government witnesses and 28 defense witnesses testify in court. Stevens testified in his own defense. Stevens and his team of lawyers made no statement as they left the courthouse.
Stevens, who has all along claimed his innocence, has been a strong advocate of opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
President George W. Bush declined to comment on the Stevens conviction.
A felony conviction does not automatically bar Stevens from serving in the senate.
If he is re-elected he could be expelled only with a two-third vote of his colleagues, according to US Senate rules.
Then the governor of Alaska -- Republican Sarah Palin, who also is her party's nominee for vice president -- would appoint a successor.
In a statement, Palin said that the verdict "shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company that was allowed to control too much of our state.
"That control was part of the culture of corruption I was elected to fight," Palin said. "And that fight must always move forward regardless of party or seniority or even past service."
As Alaska governor "I will carefully monitor this situation and take any appropriate action as needed.
In the meantime, I ask the people of Alaska to join me in respecting the workings of our judicial system. I'm confident Senator Stevens will do what is right for the people of Alaska," Palin said.
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