WASHINGTON — Gov. Sarah Palin and the head of the Alaska Republican Party said Thursday that Sen. Mark Begich should give his Senate seat up to a special election now that prosecutors have abandoned their case against Ted Stevens. "Alaskans deserve to have a fair election not tainted by some announcement that one of the candidates was convicted fairly of seven felonies, when in fact it wasn't a fair conviction," Palin said in a Thursday interview with the Daily News.
The governor said she does not want to "split hairs" on whether Begich should resign or not but agrees with the Republican Party's call for a special election.
The Republican Stevens represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate for 40 years before Begich, a Democrat, narrowly beat him last fall. The election came just a week after a Washington, D.C., jury convicted Stevens of lying about gifts that he'd received.
Begich fired back Thursday, saying that although he believed it was clear there was misconduct during the senator's trial, he stepped into the race "long before Senator Stevens' legal troubles began, because Alaskans were looking for a change and a senator as independent as Alaska.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Today, with our country in a severe recession, it's more important than ever that we have a senator focused on fixing our economy so Alaskans have the jobs they need to support their families," he said. "That is my job in the Senate, and I'm honored to serve Alaskans for the next six years."
The chairman of the state Republican Party, Randy Ruedrich, said that the only reason Begich won his race was because "a few thousand Alaskans thought that Senator Stevens was guilty of seven felonies."
He added that he thought Begich should step down "so Alaskans may have the chance to vote for a senator without the improper influence of the corrupt Department of Justice."
Palin, a Republican, had called for Stevens to step aside after he had been convicted but said Thursday that "I believed in justice through our legal system."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday that the Justice Department will move to dismiss the indictment against Stevens, who was convicted Oct. 27 on seven counts of failing to disclose gifts, including home renovations, on his U.S. Senate financial disclosure forms. Despite Palin and Ruedrich saying there should be a special election, the Republicans in Alaska's Congressional delegation said it's time to move on.
"In light of the good news yesterday, I am sure many of us wish we could turn the clock back to last November," said Begich's Senate colleague, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "Unfortunately, that is not an option."
Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young told Fox News Channel after Wednesday's announcement by Holder that although he thought Stevens "would have won hands-down. I would say by 70 percent had the Justice Department investigation not figured into his re-election campaign.
"The seated senator there, Mark Begich, will be in the Senate, he will do a good job," Young said in the Fox interview. "It's just sad that Alaskans were frankly hoodwinked into malfeasance of office work by the Justice Department itself."
Alaska Democratic Party Chair Patti Higgins said the call for a special election is an insult to the intelligence of the Alaskans who voted.
"The fact that the Obama Administration has decided to not pursue a case that the Bush Administration lawyers handled in a faulty manner does not take away the fact that Ted Stevens broke laws," she said in a written statement.
U.S. Attorney General Holder moved to dismiss the indictment after Justice Department attorneys handling the post-trial motions in the case discovered that the trial team failed to turn over to Stevens' lawyers notes from an interview conducted with the star prosecution witness in the case. It was the most recent ethical lapse by some members of the prosecution team, which was repeatedly chided by the judge in the case during the trial, and then cited with contempt after the trial when prosecutors failed to follow a judge's instructions to turn over documents to Stevens' lawyers.
DOJ found discrepancies between the interview and the courtroom testimony of the star witness, Bill Allen, the former oil-services company chief executive officer who plied Stevens with gifts. Those gifts, which went unreported on Stevens' senate financial disclosure forms, included renovations that doubled the size of the senator's residence in Alaska. Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska, is awaiting sentencing in his own case.
Begich's victory was a coup for Democrats in Alaska. But it also was a victory for Democrats in the U.S. Senate, who with Begich's win landed 58 of the 60 votes they need to have a filibuster proof majority.