WASHINGTON — The man Alaskans have chosen to represent them in the U.S. Senate for 40 years was decried by prosecutors Tuesday as mean-spirited, sputtering liar who is so lacking in character that he’d blame anyone — including his wife — to avoid shouldering responsibility himself.
Not so, countered defense attorney Brendan Sullivan: “They ask you to brand him a criminal, tarnish everything he’s done for 84 years, despite the fact the evidence is unrefuted that he’s an honorable, truthful man.”
Thus two visions of Sen. Ted Stevens, 84, clashed in sharp relief as a federal jury heard six hours of closing arguments in his disclosure trial. Stevens, who’s running for re-election, is charged in a seven-count indictment of lying year after year about gifts and benefits on his official Senate disclosure statements.
The central item is the renovation of his house in Girdwood from 2000 to 2001, in which the oil-field service company Veco, under chairman Bill Allen, provided substantial labor and material.
But the government also brought in evidence of other gifts from 1999 through 2006 from Allen, Veco, and friends Bob and Jeanie Penney and Bob Persons, owner of the Double Musky restaurant in Girdwood. They include a powerful back-up generator, an outdoor gas range, an expensive massage chair, a puppy of sled-dog pedigree, a stained glass window, furniture, tools and home repairs and improvements.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said he will deliver about two hours of instructions to the jury this morning before it retires for deliberations. Then, after a trial spanning nearly a month, the waiting begins.
Under court rules, prosecutors had two shots for their arguments, with the defense sandwiched in the middle. Each side had three hours to make its case.
GOOD FRIEND NAMED ALLEN
Joe Bottini, an assistant U.S. Attorney from Anchorage on loan to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in its broad investigation of public corruption in Alaska, began the government’s case with a soft-spoken, methodical rendition of its evidence.
Bottini re-introduced the players in the drama, leading with Allen.
“Ted Stevens had a good friend and his name was Bill Allen,” Bottini said. Stevens knew that Allen would give him “hundreds of thousands of dollars of free benefits,” Bottini said.
Bottini cut to a short audio clip of Allen and Persons talking in a wiretapped conversation.
“Ted gets hysterical when he has to spend his own money,” Persons told Allen. “The flip side of it is, he can’t really afford to pay a bunch of money.”
That’s where’s were Allen came in, Bottini said.
“Bill Allen was rich, Bill Allen was generous — Bill Allen was not hysterical about spending his own money,” Bottini told the jury.
The case starts in 1999, when Stevens, fearful of a Y2K power failure, asked Allen to “hook up” a generator.
In his testimony, Stevens said he meant he wanted Allen to rent a small portable unit just for the period around New Years Eve. What he got was a generator that was lifted with a crane, installed in a permanent shed and wired to the house with an automatic switch that started up if the power went off — a $6,000-plus set-up. The next fall, when Veco began working on his addition, it moved the generator to the other side of the house and put in a new transfer switch with double the rating.
Stevens knew full well what he got, Bottini said, and never told Allen to get rid of it, or made an offer to pay for it. Yet he never listed the generator as a gift.
“He disclosed nothing because he didn’t want anyone to know,” Bottini said. “Can you imagine what the press would have done if he put it on that form? It would have been front-page news.” The pressure from the public would have put a stop to any more gifts, Bottini said.
Bottini went through the list of smaller items. Anticipating that the defense might ridicule the prosecution for “making a federal case about this dog,” Bottini explained that the dog showed how Stevens engineered a cover up in 2004.
“The case isn’t about the dog. It’s about what he did,” Bottini said.
According to testimony, Stevens was ogling a blue-eyed, white-fur husky puppy at the Kenai River Classic charity auction in 2003. He made an early bid, but Penney, an Anchorage real estate developer with a passion for Kenai River sportfishing, won the dog for $1,000. Stevens ended up with the dog anyway.
The following May, when he was preparing his disclosure, he sent e-mails to Penney and others suggesting that he couldn’t accept the dog as a $1,000 gift because that was over the gift limit.
“He calls it his, pardon me, his 'goddam’ disclosure form,” Bottini said, quoting one of the e-mails. “That pretty much displays his attitude.”
By the time Stevens filled out his disclosure, it became a $250 gift. How? Penney claimed he donated the $1,000 dog not directly to Stevens but to the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association. The association then donated the dog to Stevens, who listed it as a $250 present — a value within the Senate rules.
“This is a classic cover-up, ladies and gentlemen,” Bottini said. “What they tried to do is structure a story so that he launders the dog through the Classic.”
While the dog and other gifts played out among his small circle of friends, the home remodel was something else: It took place in public and required specialist contractors who couldn’t be trusted — or who may not want to give Stevens anything, Bottini said.
The solution? Have a mix of contractors paid by Stevens and workers from Veco — 19 in all — paid by Allen. As Bottini spoke, the names of the Veco workers appeared on a monitor.
Stevens and his wife paid about $160,000 to the contractors. The value of Veco’s work, even after the judge removed some of the evidence, was at least $100,000, Bottini said.
Even if Veco didn’t do the most efficient job because it specialized in oil field construction, so what. “He knew that the price was right — he was going to get this work for free,” Bottini said.
Stevens’ lawyer, Sullivan, accused prosecutors of offering a “twisted” account of Sen. Ted Stevens’ life over the past eight years. He told jurors that “you have an innocent man on your hands” and that government investigators have exaggerated the case against the Republican senator.
“If you look at life through a filthy, dirty glass, then the whole world looks dirty,” Sullivan said of the corruption case that the Justice Department brought against Stevens. “You have heard evidence that this is a very decent man. Would he be involved in a conspiracy, year after year, covering up?”
Sullivan, famous for his courtroom theatrics, modulated his voice, rising from shouts of outrage with his arms pumping over his head to soft-spoken, almost intimate conversation. At one point, jurors in the back row stopped him and said they couldn’t hear his words.
Sullivan reminded jurors that in a case such as this, where Stevens’ truthfulness is at stake, they can take into account the testimony of character witnesses. A parade of character witnesses, including Gen. Colin Powell, testified to Stevens’ truthfulness, character and integrity earlier in the trial.
“The law thinks that a good life is worth something,” Sullivan said. “It permits that kind of evidence so that you can rely upon it when you have to go in that room to make a decision that affects his life.”
Sullivan also used his time to focus on the same themes that he worked to elicit from Stevens himself when the senator took the stand in his own defense in the final three days of the trial.
Stevens maintained throughout his own testimony that he didn’t want the things he was given and that he never received bills for some of the work done on his home, even though he asked for invoices. He placed the blame on his wife, Catherine, saying repeatedly that she was responsible for overseeing the renovations that led, in part, to his federal indictment.
“They believed they paid their debts and they didn’t think they were getting anything for free,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan ridiculed the government’s case as an effort to paint Stevens as “some mastermind of conspiracy.”
“Honest, truthful men like that don’t engage in six-year conspiracies,” he said.
On the other hand, Allen, the government’s chief witness, had a strong motive to lie, Sullivan said. Allen was protecting his family in the deal he made with the government when he pleaded guilty to bribing state legislators, he said. In the deal, the government agreed to not prosecute his son, Mark, or any other family member.
“What will a man say on the witness stand to prevent his children from being charged?” Sullivan suddenly thundered in the courtroom. “Have you ever heard of a motive to lie worse than holding your family and son hostage?”
'STAND UP TO HIM’
Look beyond his title of senator, said Brenda Morris, the lead Justice Department prosecutor on the case, as she concluded the government’s closing arguments.
“I ask you to do something that very few people have done,” Morris said, recalling Stevens’ sometimes snarling responses to her cross examination. “Stand up to him. Behind all that growling, and all those snappy comebacks and that righteous indignation, he’s just a man. He should stand up and take responsibility like everyone who comes into the courtroom. Make him responsible.”
Stevens was eloquent on the stand when he spoke of his own accomplishments, Morris said. But when he was asked about the renovations, she said, “he started stuttering and sputtering. Because he can’t answer that because what he was telling you nonsense.”
More than the other two lawyers, Morris tried to connect personally with the jury, asking them to think what it would be like to talk about the case in a friend’s kitchen.
“Don’t leave your common sense at the door,” she said.
Recalling all the times Stevens said that he was surprised to find items left by Allen, Morris said: “Maybe since the defendant lives so close to the North Pole, maybe Santa and his elves came down and did this work and completed it. He had no idea.”
Stevens said his wife managed the construction project, but the testimony only showed her writing checks and making some minor decorating decisions, Morris said.
“Why all the sudden now is Catherine going to be responsible for this renovation? She’s the mover and shaker on this? All you see her name associated with is the starfish knobs and paint,” Morris said.
“He testified here on Friday that his wife explained herself quite well,” Morris said of Stevens. “That woman, Catherine Stevens, is still recovering from the bus he threw her under.”
Through most of her presentation, Stevens sat with his eyes closed, his face gray.
How could Stevens not be able to stop Allen from giving him things, she said.
“He didn’t know how to get his key back?” she asked, reminding the jury that even after he changed the locks, he gave Allen the new key. “He didn’t know how to stop a crazy man from putting stuff all up in his house?”
She said Stevens kept changing his story as his needs changed.
“What is consistent is that everyone is to blame but the defendant,” she said. It was Bill Allen’s fault. It was his wife’s fault. It was his secretary’s fault. It was the fault of Veco employees.
“This is a lawyer. This is a man who knows details. And it’s everyone’s fault but his,” she said.Complete Alaska election coverage
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