WASHINGTON -- As it was, the witness chair was an unfamiliar venue for the senator of 40 years. But the aggressive, hostile questions Friday from a senior government prosecutor landed hard on Sen. Ted Stevens, famed for his short fuse.
Baited with rapid-fire challenges to his integrity, honesty and credibility, Stevens mainly answered "yes" or "no" before a jury that will soon be judging him, and keeping to his story that he didn't believe he received any gifts from the oil-field service company Veco or its chairman, Bill Allen.
Earlier Friday, questioned by his own attorney, Stevens dismissed earlier testimony from Allen that the senator once acknowledged owing the Veco boss money for the work. He called what Allen said in court "an absolute lie."
By late Friday afternoon, jurors had gotten a taste of the testy 84-year-old senator, who once called himself "the meanest man in town."
"Aren't these e-mails really what you're doing, you're covering your bottom?" asked Brenda Morris, the lead Justice Department prosecutor on his case, asking Stevens about how he handled a 2004 press inquiry into who paid for his renovations. The question referred back to the most memorable line of the trial, when Allen testified Oct. 1 that Stevens was just "covering his ass" in asking for invoices he had no intention of paying.
"My bottom wasn't bare," Stevens snapped back at Morris.
Stevens spent a grueling day on the witness stand, beginning with his lawyer guiding him through nearly four hours of testimony in the morning and early afternoon. Morris spent more than an hour on follow-up questions before the trial recessed for the weekend. Stevens is scheduled to be back in the witness chair Monday morning.
Stevens is charged in a seven-count felony indictment with lying on Senate disclosure forms from 1999-2006 by failing to report gifts, services and other benefits. Most were from Veco or Allen, both deeply involved in the renovations on Stevens' official residence in Girdwood starting in 2000.
Stevens' veteran defense attorney, Brendan Sullivan, spent most of the direct examination going over the list of alleged gifts item by item, with Stevens' specific refutation.
The process, used by both prosecution and defense, has become almost a rite: The witness, in this case Stevens, is directed to read a passage in an e-mail or note projected on monitors throughout the courtroom, including a large number of flat-screen panels shared by jurors. Often the same correspondence is used by the opposing side, only with different emphasis.
By now, some jurors could probably recite by heart the first three sentences of Government's Exhibit 509. It's come up with both Allen and Stevens to prove the government's case that Stevens knew about the work Veco did on his home, and by the defense to prove Stevens' intentions were honest.
The exhibit is a handwritten note from Stevens to Allen on Nov. 8, 2002 -- a few days after Stevens won his sixth full term.
"Many thanks for all you have done to make our living easier and our home more enjoyable. The Christmas lights top it all -- our 80-foot tree lighted to the highest point!"
The lights, in fact, have turned into a key matter of contention. Veco installed hundreds of feet of rope lighting on the house, then built an underground cable to the spruce and installed two electric boxes and weather-proof outlets on the trunk. Veco workers ran the lights up the tree using a boom truck.
Despite the note, Stevens said he didn't like the lights and only wanted Allen to find someone to put up his own small colored lights he stored in his garage. Some of the strands he bought at post-Christmas sales, he said.
The third sentence in Government Exhibit 509 is: "Don't forget we need a bill for what's been done at the Chalet."
Stevens never got a bill from Allen.
The tedious list of refutations by Stevens during his direct examination became quick fodder for Morris when she opened her cross examination with a jolt.
You didn't want the rope lights, she asked.
That's right, said Stevens.
You didn't want the first-floor deck?
I said I didn't expect it, corrected Stevens.
You didn't want the plastic roof over the deck?
I didn't know about that, said Stevens.
You didn't want the steel staircase?
You didn't want the gas grill?
You didn't want the fish statue?
You didn't know about the repairs to the garage?
You didn't want the big black furniture?
You didn't want the tools?
Stevens said all those items appeared without him asking, starting in 2001. He couldn't stop Allen from giving them to him.
"If you didn't want all these items, why didn't you ask for the key back?" Morris said.
"Because we were still friends," Stevens said. "He was still using the place more than I was."
"You were the 'Lion of the Senate,'" she said, a sarcastic reference to character witness testimony earlier in the week by Sen. Orrin Hatch. "But you didn't know how to stop a man from putting stuff in your place?"
"He was a good friend," Stevens again said of Allen.
"He did things I didn't like and I asked him to change and he said he would," Stevens added later. "But he didn't."
Stevens continually denied knowing that Veco itself provided any material or labor. But pressed on the grated steel staircase, custom-welded by Allen's nephew, Stevens said that Allen told him it came from the junk yard after it was removed from an oil platform
Did Allen have a junk yard in his home, Morris asked, or was it Veco's junk yard?
Stevens said he figured its cost was folded into the bills his wife actually paid to one of the contractors, Christensen Buildings. The owner of the company had earlier testified he had nothing to do with the staircase.
Over the course of the trial, the Washington jury has had a crash course in Alaskaology: the state's vast distances and regions, its unique Native corporations, dog mushing, the Kenai River and salmon fishing, the conflict between sport and commercial fishermen, Girdwood weather, roof glaciation and heat tape, moose on the highways, time zones, Statehood, the unending number of people planning to came to Alaska for a year or two only to stay for decades, and lots more.
Stevens added two new ones.
While Stevens made several requests for bills over the course of the cabin renovation, Morris noted, why didn't he ever ask for the price? The Veco architect who drew plans -- Stevens sent him a note at his Veco office, asking for a bill. Yet Stevens never asked, before or after, how much the plans would cost -- if he was serious about paying, why did he not get an estimate first, Morris asked.
"I don't ask him about his hourly wage. I just asked him for his bill. That's the Alaska way," Stevens said.
Did he check the architect's references, see whether he was licensed? No, said Stevens, he trusted Allen's recommendation.
Did he see whether the architect was bonded?
"We don't require anyone to have a bond," Stevens said. "That's not the Alaska way."
The architect, John Hess, was a Veco engineer who testified that he drew up the plans on company time. Hess said he wrote Stevens back that he couldn't charge for his time -- Stevens would have to pay Veco, he said.
Stevens said he never got that reply from Hess.
Stevens bristled at times during the cross-examination, having to wait for a question before he could reply. Sometimes the judge intervened. Stevens showed his disdain for Morris' questions by occasionally responding with inquiries of his own.
"I think you better rephrase your question, your question is tautological," he lectured Morris in response to a question about renovations to his deck.
And for a brief moment, Stevens and Morris traded roles.
Morris said he knew he was getting gifts when he sought a bill.
"If it's a gift, why did I ask for a bill?" said Stevens, redirecting the question to Morris.
"To cover your butt," she replied.
"That wasn't fair, ma'am," Stevens said.
Earlier in the day, under questioning by his own lawyer, Stevens had accused Allen of lying to jurors about conversations the two had when they were still friends.
Allen testified earlier in Stevens' corruption trial that he never gave Stevens invoices for work done on the senator's home in Girdwood, even though Stevens asked for them. Allen, who pleaded guilty last year to bribing Alaska state lawmakers, agreed to testify in Stevens' trial and two others in exchange for leniency in his own sentencing.
Stevens disputed Allen's account of a 2006 conversation in Arizona, where they were both vacationing on their annual "boot camps" -- get-togethers where they would drink wine and walk in the desert to shed weight. Allen testified that he and Stevens talked about the need for the senator to receive invoices for the Veco work on the house. But Stevens denied the conversation.
"That's just an absolute lie, I heard it," Stevens said, referring to Allen's courtroom testimony. "It's just an absolute lie."
Stevens also expanded on the "teepee" theory his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, first introduced in the opening day of the trial. His wife was responsible for everything inside the teepee, Stevens said.
"What goes on inside" was up to Catherine, Stevens said. "Outside is my business." That system suited them both, he said.
When Stevens described his initial vision for renovating their cabin by adding a garage and a bunkroom on the first floor, he testified that it wasn't what his wife wanted and, therefore, they came up with a more elegant design.
"When she said she didn't like that plan, there was a new plan, and there was no argument," Stevens said. "And I wasn't unhappy about it."
Catherine was in charge of all of it, Stevens testified. She obtained the line of credit, maintained the checkbook for their house-related expenses and received all of the bills. She paid them all, too, Stevens said.
"She got all the bills and paid all the bills," he said.
Yet Stevens himself demonstrated extensive knowledge of how much money was going into the project. He asked his old law school friend, George Reycraft, to dissolve a trust worth about $50,000 to devote to the renovations. He instructed his bookkeeper to open up a bank account with $10,000, and he and his wife took out a line of credit together.
The trial, which began Sept. 22 with jury selection, is likely to conclude Monday. The jury could begin deliberations as soon as Tuesday.