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Alaska Sen. Stevens charged with hiding gifts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Veteran Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was charged on Tuesday with concealing more than $250,000 worth of gifts, including home renovations, that he received from an Alaska oil services company, the Justice Department said.

The Alaska politician, who has served 40 years in the Senate, was charged in a federal grand jury indictment with seven counts of making false statements on his Senate financial disclosure forms from 2001 to 2006, the department said.

Stevens denied the charges but said he stepped down as required by party rules as top Republican on the Democratic-led Commerce Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and Homeland Security subcommittee on Disaster Recovery. He gave no indication he planned to resign from the Senate.

“I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that,” Stevens said in a statement. “I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator.”

There was no immediate indication that Republicans would try to pressure Stevens to resign, but it was “unclear how things will develop,” a Republican aide said.

Patti Higgins, chair of the Alaska Democratic Party, said Stevens “should step down.” She said, “Alaskans need representation in the Senate that they can trust.”

In the event Stevens resigns, Alaska’s governor cannot appoint a successor and a special election would be held between 60 and 90 days of his vacating his Senate seat, according to Alaska state rules.

Stevens is accused of receiving substantial improvements to his Alaska home that included a new first floor, a finished full basement, a wraparound deck, and plumbing, electrical and heating work.

The indictment also charged that he received a new vehicle in exchange for an older one worth far less, and household goods such as furniture and a new gas range, the Justice Department said.

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The charges followed a wide-ranging corruption investigation in Alaska coordinated by the department’s Office of Public Integrity that began in 2004, officials said.

The senator faces a tough campaign for re-election in November. Democrats view Stevens as highly vulnerable as they seek to expand their Senate majority, now at 51-49.

Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 elections after a number of Republican scandals, many of them tied to now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The indictment said Stevens, 84, received the gifts from VECO Corp, formerly a multinational oil services company based in Stevens’ oil-producing state, from its one-time top executive Bill Allen and others.

It accuses Stevens, a former chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee and the longest-serving Republican senator ever, of using his position and office in the Senate on behalf of VECO between 2001 and 2006.

The 28-page indictment said Stevens provided false information in financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate that required him to report items of value he had received.

“Stevens ... knowingly and intentionally sought to conceal and cover up his receipt of things of value by filing financial disclosure forms that contained false statements and omissions concerning Stevens’ receipt of these things of value,” the indictment said.

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The Alaskan investigation covered suspected influence peddling by officials at VECO, then the state’s largest oil-services company and a major patron of Alaska Republicans.

Stevens was the 10th person to be charged. Last summer, agents from the FBI and Internal Revenue Service searched his home in the ski resort of Girdwood, south of Anchorage.

The senator, who has a reputation for being hard-driving and having a hot temper, was first appointed to the Senate in 1968 to fill a seat vacated by the death of Democratic Sen. Bob Bartlett and has subsequently been re-elected by wide margins.

Stevens is nicknamed “Uncle Ted” because of his long record of steering billions of dollars in federal funding to Alaska. In 2000, a civic organization and the state Legislature honored him by naming him “Alaskan of the Century.”

Word of the indictment raced through the state Capitol in Juneau, where lawmakers were holding a special session on energy issues.

“It’s a long way from a conviction, but just the idea that the Alaskan of the Century has been indicted on federal charges sort of tilts the earth,” said state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat.

(Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen and Richard Cowan)

Editing by David Alexander and Philip Barbara