Stevens jury gets down to detail work

Erika Bolstad,Richard Mauer
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, flanked by his his daughter Beth Stevens, left, and wife, Catherine, right, arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008, as his trial on corruption charges goes to the jury.
Photo by AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON - Jurors weighing whether Sen. Ted Stevens is guilty of lying on his financial disclosure forms have developed a reputation for flaky behavior over the past several days, but they are apparently giving the evidence a meticulous reading.

Today, the jury picked up on a discrepancy between the indictment and the evidence in the case against the 84-year-old senator from Alaska. Why, jurors wondered, does the indictment say Stevens checked "no" on his 2001 financial disclosure form when asked whether he accepted any gifts?

The indictment also alleges Stevens did not attach any schedule detailing what gifts he received. Yet Stevens actually checked "yes," acknowledging that he had received gifts, the jurors noticed. Stevens also disclosed a gift: a $1,100 gold commemorative coin struck for the 2001 Special Olympics in Alaska.

The judge decided to answer the question by instructing jurors that "the indictment is merely a charging document; it is not evidence. You must consider all the evidence and my instructions to determine whether the government has proven each element of an offense in the indictment beyond a reasonable doubt."

The juror question refers to the first page of the disclosure form, on which senators are asked to report any gift of a value of $260 or more from 2001. Senators who check "yes" are directed to fill out a supplement schedule listing each gift, its source and its value.

For some of the years covered in the indictment, Stevens checked "yes." For instance, in 2004 he reported receiving an $800 rug from the president of Azerbaijan, which he donated to the secretary of state. But in no instance from 2000 to 2006 did Stevens list gifts from Veco or Bill Allen, the two people accused of providing most of the unreported gifts to him.

The discrepancy caught by jurors got by nearly everybody -- the judge, lawyers on both sides and even reporters who have sat through the proceedings. Still, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan disagreed with prosecutors when they called it a typographical error.

"Presumably somebody reads these indictments before they return them," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Presumably."

The jury's attention to detail suggests its members are combing carefully through their instructions and matching up all of the counts in the instructions with the evidence and the allegations in the indictment.

"This jury is very perceptive; they aren't missing anything," Judge Sullivan said.

The jury's question is an important one because the year 2001 is at the heart of the government case, which accuses Stevens of accepting more than $250,000 in gifts over six years and willfully failing to disclose them on his financial disclosure forms.

In 2001 alone, Stevens is accused of accepting $110,153.64 in materials, labor and other renovation expenses to his home in Girdwood. He also is accused of accepting furniture for that home and a $2,695 massage chair for his home in Washington, D.C. Other gifts prosecutors said he accepted include a new tool cabinet with tools, a new professional Viking gas grill and a stained glass window.

One of Stevens' attorneys, Craig Singer, argued that Stevens can't be accused of making false statements when he did answer "yes" that he accepted gifts.

But prosecutors countered that the discrepancy doesn't matter. Even if Stevens did check "yes" on the form, he was legally obligated to report all gifts he received, and he never disclosed receiving any of the home repairs he got from Allen, Veco and others.

The jury passed the note to the judge shortly after noon on Monday Washington time, about three hours into their deliberations.

Jurors, who got the case Wednesday afternoon after four weeks of testimony, were ordered to start deliberating from scratch Monday after one of the jurors had to be dismissed over the weekend and replaced with an alternate. The dismissed juror learned her father died last week, holding up deliberations for a day while the judge determined whether to proceed without her.

Jurors got their flaky reputation last week when just a day into deliberations, they sent the judge a note asking for one of the jurors to be removed. The juror was having "violent outburst with other jurors," they told the judge. He lectured them on civility and jurors left for the day all smiles, the problem apparently resolved.

But then a juror's father died and she had to leave. The judge lost touch with the grieving juror, No. 4, over the weekend and couldn't determine whether she'd be available this week, so he decided Sunday to appoint an alternate juror.

Sullivan had halted deliberations Friday, but he decided in a hearing Sunday night to begin again with the alternate Monday morning.

As soon as court began for the day, Sullivan brought the alternate in for a brief conversation to see whether anything had happened over the weekend that would make her unable to deliberate and then told her to rejoin the jurors.

"We really appreciate your availability. Thank you," he told her. As one of four alternates, she'd sat through the trial but was dismissed once the jury began its deliberations last week. However, she and the other three alternates were warned not to read anything about the trial or talk to anyone about it because they might still be asked back.

The judge brought in the other jurors and told them not to speculate about why juror No. 4 no longer was present. He didn't tell them about her personal situation.

He also told them they needed to start their deliberations from scratch with the alternate juror but that how they did it was for them to decide.

Federal juries are allowed to proceed with fewer than 12 jurors. However, while it's common to reach a verdict with just 11, it's almost unheard of to proceed with fewer than that. Stevens' attorneys had advocated continuing with 11 rather than replacing the missing juror with an alternate.

The jury of eight women and four men must review seven felony counts to determine whether Stevens is guilty of lying on his Senate disclosure forms about gifts, mostly home repairs from the oil-services company Veco Corp. and its former owner, Allen. The Alaska Republican also is accused of accepting other gifts from other friends and failing to report them.

Although it's impossible to tell where it was in its deliberations before losing - and then regaining - a juror, the jury appears to be moving at a pretty fast clip so far. It got the case Wednesday afternoon and sent Sullivan a note Thursday afternoon asking to go home a little early and saying it had reviewed all the instructions.

The jury's prompt and apparently meticulous start Monday morning was a positive development for a panel that's had more than its share of theatrics since it began its deliberations. The judge took note after it left the courtroom to begin deliberating.

"Everyone was smiling. Everyone seems to be in a good mood this morning," the judge said. "No one appeared to be agitated or displeased. That's all I have to say."

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