By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) paid every bill sent to him for extensive renovations of his home and did not lie on financial disclosure forms, his attorney told jurors yesterday, as testimony began in the first trial of a sitting U.S. senator in more than two decades.
"The evidence will demonstrate that you are dealing here with a man who is honest and would not have intentionally violated the law," Stevens's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, said in his opening statement in U.S. District Court.
Stevens, 84, one of the Senate's most powerful Republicans, is charged with failing to disclose in Senate documents that he received more than $250,000 in gifts and extensive renovations to his home, which he calls "the chalet," in Girdwood, Alaska.
Prosecutors alleged yesterday that Stevens hid those gifts and renovations to avoid public scrutiny of his ties to Bill Allen, the top executive of an oil services company, Veco. Allen and Veco funded many of the improvements, which included adding a new first floor, a garage and a wraparound deck.
But Sullivan yesterday accused Allen of hiding the true costs of the project from the senator. Sullivan told jurors that Stevens relied on Allen to oversee the project because the lawmaker spent most of his time in Washington and trusted Allen, a longtime friend who had experience in construction, Sullivan said.
"You can't report what you don't know," he said. "You can't fill out a form and report what was kept from you from the deviousness of someone like Bill Allen."
Allen, who has pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges, has provided critical testimony that led to convictions in federal court of two Alaska state legislators, as part of a wide-ranging public corruption investigation. He is expected to be a key prosecution witness in Stevens's trial.
After he was indicted in late July, Stevens requested a speedy trial in the hope of clearing his name before the November election. He is seeking his seventh full term in the Senate but is behind in the polls.
Seeking to counter prosecutors' arguments that Stevens was trying to skirt the financial disclosure system, Sullivan told jurors that his client paid more than $160,000 in renovation costs. He added that Stevens relied on his second wife, Catherine, to oversee much of the project.
"Catherine ran the financial part of the renovation," Sullivan said, adding that the senator's family had a saying: "When it comes to things around the tepee, the wife controls."
Stevens paid some bills for work performed by a subcontractor who funneled invoices to Stevens through Veco, prosecutors acknowledged. But they said Stevens did not pay tens of thousands of dollars in other costs borne by Veco, which provided materials and whose employees supervised or performed much of the work.
Prosecutors estimate the cost of those renovations and gifts given to Stevens by Allen and other friends at more than $250,000.
"The defendant never paid Veco or Allen a dime for work on the chalet," said Brenda Morris, a prosecutor with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section.
Morris told jurors that Stevens was a shrewd politician who knew how to evade rules by concealing the gifts and work on financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate annually from 2001 through 2006. Among the gifts Stevens received from Allen and other friends were a massage chair, a toolbox and a stained-glass window, Morris said.
"This is a case about a public official who took hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of free financial benefits and then took away the public's right to know the information," Morris said.
Morris said Stevens first expressed a desire to renovate his modest home in 1997 but complained that he couldn't afford it. By 1999 and 2000, he was talking to his friend Allen about making extensive renovations to the house, Morris said.
Over the next few years, Stevens would repeatedly call on Allen and others at Veco to remodel the home and make repairs, Morris told jurors.
"We reach for the Yellow Pages," Morris said. "He reached for Veco."
In exchange for the renovation work and gifts, Stevens helped or promised to help Veco with various matters, such as prodding officials to build a natural gas pipeline in Alaska and requesting that the World Bank become involved in a dispute between Veco and Pakistan over delays in a project, prosecutors have alleged.
Stevens's lawyer told jurors that the senator didn't seek or want many of the gifts. Sullivan added that there was nothing wrong with Stevens helping Veco or others in Alaska.
Morris said jurors will hear about a 2006 conversation between Stevens and Allen that shows the senator knew he was skirting disclosure rules. He told Allen that they wouldn't be too badly harmed by potential legal problems but would have to spend some money on legal bills and might do some jail time, Stevens told Allen, according to Morris.
Both sides are expected to rely heavily on e-mails sent and received by Stevens during the renovation process.