Sen. Stevens – One: Public Interest – Zero


U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens’  trial for corruption has gone before a jury for deliberations. Federal prosecutors accuse the long-serving lawmaker of lying on Senate forms to conceal more than $250,000 in renovations on his home in Alaska and other gifts from a former chief of an oil services company. But it appears as if Stevens’ defense lawyers have secured a key victory by convincing the judge to frame a key question in his favor.

Earlier this month, our friends at Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) wrote that every charge brought against the Senator relates to his failure to disclose gifts and debts on his Senate financial disclosure form. It’s critical to the public’s right to know “where and from whom our public servants receive gifts, loans, and payments,” as TCS wrote. “The government, in its opening statement and throughout the trial, has maintained that the public right to know is an important element in this case and that Stevens’ failure to disclose was a breach of this right.”

As I wrote about 10 days ago, TCS reported that Stevens’ defense attorneys argued that the public’s right to know is not relevant since the prosecution’s charges fall under the False Statements Act, which carries criminal penalties but applies only to statements made to government.  They argued that these laws deal only with disclosure to the Senate. The defense said that prosecutors could press the public right to know provision under the Ethics in Government Act, which carries only civil penalty.

Yesterday, prior to jury deliberations, the judge issued them 73 instructions, which TCS has posted. In “Instruction No. 65” the judge sided with the defense in writing, “You have heard reference during the trial to public interest in disclosure. Senator Stevens is charged with making false statements to the government, not to the public, and public disclosure is not an element of the charges in this case.”

Federal prosecutors argued in a brief that the “public interest in the information contained in defendant’s public financial disclosure forms is directly relevant to the defendant’s motive and intent, and to the element of materiality, and there is no danger of prejudice to the defendant.” Their main two points: 1) Stevens’ concealment of information from the public is relevant and proper evidence of his intent and motive to conceal material facts; and 2) references to the “public interest” does not unfairly prejudice the case against the defendant. “The government has properly emphasized that the law requires public transparency for the reason that the Congress intended for the general public to scrutinize the reports in light of other information, and to provide for the opportunity to bring that information to the attention of the proper authorities,” the brief says.

It’s outrageous that the judge would cripple the prosecution’s case by disregarding the public interest of all things.