Stevens defense nears conclusion

October 14, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- The jury could begin deliberations Monday in Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption case, leading to the possibility of a verdict less than two weeks before the veteran Republican stands for re-election in Alaska.

Stevens' lawyers should finish their defense late Wednesday or Thursday, and prosecutors will have the opportunity to present rebuttal witnesses. They'll likely have closing arguments Monday, said U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan; then he'll give jurors the case.

Today, lawyers for the senator continued to work to sow doubt in the minds of the jury as part of their effort to prove the central theme of their defense: that the Alaska Republican thought he was paying every bill he was given for renovations to his home in Girdwood.

They bolstered their case with testimony from Augie Paone, the Anchorage carpenter who did the bulk of the renovations that doubled the size of Stevens' once-modest A-frame.

Stevens, 84, is on trial on charges that he lied on the Senate financial-disclosure forms he's required to file each year. He's accused of failing to report gifts and home renovations worth more than $250,000, chiefly from Veco Corp. and its former chief executive, Bill Allen, who was the prosecution's star witness.

Prosecutors made the case that Veco paid for much of the work, including the decks, plumbing and a complete electrical overhaul. To that end, jurors heard exhaustive testimony from Veco employees and tradesmen -- especially the electricians -- who worked on Stevens' home yet never submitted bills for their work.

But Paone, a defense witness, said today he was very specific about billing the Stevenses for plumbing and electrical supplies, suggesting Stevens and his wife could have thought they were paying for everything themselves.

Since Stevens is an elected official, Paone said, he was very careful to do everything by the book. He met with Allen in late summer 2000 to go over the project's parameters.

"We were both under the impression that we were going to, based on the senator being an elected official, I was going to present all my bills to the senator or Bill to make sure he knew exactly what he was getting," Paone said.

Paone said Stevens' wife, Catherine, paid him promptly when he sent the first five bills.

But when Paone began to testify about the sixth bill, for $19,818, the judge stopped him, based on objections from prosecutors. In their opening statements, Stevens' lawyers told jurors that Paone was told by Allen and the construction foreman Robert "Rocky" Williams that he was going to "eat that bill."

Prosecutors argued that Paone's testimony today seemed likely to contradict his testimony to a grand jury, in which he said Allen never explicitly said he would "eat" the bill but implied it. The judge will make a decision Wednesday morning on how to proceed.

Other witnesses weren't quite as successful for the defense as Paone. Jeanne Penney, a close friend of Stevens' wife, testified about a $3,000 stained-glass window that she bought as a housewarming present once the Stevenses finished construction on their home. Prosecutors have presented evidence that Stevens never disclosed the window as a gift.

Tuesday, Penney stumbled when she described for whom the gift was intended.

"I gave her a gift. I gave them a gift," she said, adding, "The interest of that gift was primarily to my friend, Catherine Bittner Stevens."

One of Stevens' daughters, Susan Covich, testified about another alleged benefit Allen offered Stevens: a pricey mechanical training course for Covich's son, Stevens' grandson. Allen helped Covich's son get into a Veco job-training program when he was a troubled young man struggling with addiction to drugs. She broke down as she described how her son, now incarcerated, lost his job with Veco, despite his family connections.

Covich also offered testimony designed to help boost another defense theme: that Stevens neither needed nor wanted the gifts Allen was giving, and that they were for the benefit of the Veco chief when he used the Girdwood home.

She testified that she often stayed at her father's home in Girdwood in 2002 when she was traveling between college classes in Anchorage and her home three hours south. Allen was often there when she arrived late at night, she said. One time, there were cars in the driveway and when she went inside, all the bedroom doors were closed.

"I was planning to make my stopover into my dad's house," she said. "There were lights on, cars in the parking lot. It just got too creepy, so I just drove on."

Two other character witnesses also testified Tuesday. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Stevens colleague in the Senate since 1976, described his friend as a "fine, decent, honorable man."

"I'd rate him at the very top," Hatch said. "He's one of the true lions of the Senate, along with my friend Ted Kennedy. He's totally honest, totally straightforward, fights for his state like you can't believe."

Stevens' wife is tentatively scheduled to testify too, although the senator's lawyers haven't said whether she will.

Stevens himself is at the end of the witness list, as a potential final witness, but it remains unclear whether he will actually testify. Judge Sullivan reminded Stevens -- out of the presence of the jury -- that he was under no obligation to do so.

"It's your choice. You don't have to say anything," Sullivan said this morning.

Sullivan ruled this morning that thousands of e-mails that Catherine Stevens sent will be turned over to federal prosecutors, who'd first asked for them more than a year ago.

Communications between Stevens and her husband "will be relevant to show the material elements of the charges in the indictment, including defendant's knowledge, intent and motivation for concealing the benefits he received from Veco," prosecutors argued.

They added that "in particular, we anticipate that certain documents at the time of the renovations will reflect that both Catherine Stevens and defendant knew they had not paid for the Veco work, and documents thereafter will reflect that Catherine Stevens and defendant took steps in 2004 to mislead the press when the media was investigating the costs associated with the renovations."

Stevens' lawyers had tried over the weekend to quash a Sept. 15 subpoena seeking the documents from her law firm, Mayer Brown.

Prosecutors had asked for communications between Catherine Stevens and anyone with a U.S. Senate e-mail address, as well as documents relating to anything of value given or provided to Ted Stevens, his wife or his daughter, Lily. That includes "any documents relating to diamond earrings," according to a motion filed by Stevens' attorneys.

Sullivan said he saw no reason for prosecutors not to have the documents, and he ordered Stevens' lawyers to turn them over.

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