The Aw-Shucks Defense

Average guy Ted Stevens, arriving at court with daughter Beth.
Average guy Ted Stevens, arriving at court with daughter Beth. (By Jose Luis Magana -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 26, 2008

Sen. Ted Stevens, his career and his freedom in jeopardy, did the honorable thing as he went on trial yesterday on corruption-related charges. He blamed his wife.

Yes, Stevens, the first sitting senator to be indicted in a generation, failed to report a home renovation and other pricey gifts from a pipeline company. But, his lawyer told the jury yesterday, it was his wife who reviewed the bills and took care of the finances.

"You have to look at the relationship between Ted and Catherine, because it says something about what happened here," superlawyer Brendan Sullivan declared. In fact, he said, the Stevens family has a saying: "When it comes to things around the tepee, the wife controls. That might seem old-fashioned, but Ted Stevens is old-fashioned."

And rather ungallant.

The 84-year-old senator left his lawyers the unenviable task of explaining away all the goodies he took but didn't report. "He didn't want these things," Sullivan said of the gifts. The tool cabinet? "He wanted it out of there." The furniture? "Used! Big cigarette hole in it." The garage? "It snows six feet a year." The $20,000 worth of Christmas lights? "I suppose Ted Stevens, the senator, should go home and get some climbing shoes on, go up and take them down, and send 'em back?"

Actually, all he had to do was report them to the Senate on his disclosure forms. But instead, Stevens, caught up in a sprawling Alaska corruption scandal, sat scowling and grumbling in the defendant's chair yesterday as he listened to opening arguments that, in a way, echoed the class-warfare themes of the campaign trail. Prosecutor Brenda Morris portrayed Stevens as a man of privileged tastes foreign to the 16 jurors. In response, Sullivan, counsel to Ollie North and Henry Cisneros, portrayed the former Senate president pro tempore as the very model of the average guy.

"The defendant is a career politician; he has been a United States senator for 40 years," Morris told the jurors. "You do not survive politics in this town for that long without . . . knowing how to fly under the radar."

"Excuse me!" Sullivan, leaping to his feet, complained to the judge, who ignored the objection.

Morris spoke to the jurors, 10 of whom are women, as if chatting with girlfriends. Stevens "denied the public its right to know," she said, "so he could keep the flow of benies coming." The renovation was expensive, she taunted, "but, hey, the cost is always good when the price is free." She had contempt for Stevens's "expensive massage chair from Brookstone -- you know, that gadget store you see in all the malls." She ridiculed the free services done for him by Veco, the pipeline company: "We reach for the Yellow Pages -- he reached for Veco."

Morris deplored his "sheer extravagance," his "house near Georgetown," his "racehorse partnership" and the Alaska home Stevens unwisely called his chalet. "The chalet was transformed," Morris exulted. "The hammers were swingin' at the chalet."

For the occasion, Stevens left his Incredible Hulk necktie at home in favor of a somber blue number, and he traded his usual orthopedic sneakers for traditional black shoes. Using a court-provided hearing device and sticking out his lower lip in a perma-scowl, he muttered a protest when the prosecutor spoke of his failure to pay for the renovations, grumbled when she mentioned all the add-ons at his home, and tossed his pen down when she mentioned the Land Rover he got in a sweetheart vehicle swap.

With some difficulty, Sullivan tried to portray his client, and himself, as humble commoners, giving aw-shucks accounting of the "strange story about the remodel" that landed Stevens in court. "I'm not used to wearing a microphone," the superlawyer said sheepishly as he began his argument. And Stevens, though representing "pretty far away" Alaska, "lives here with us in the District of Columbia because he works up on Capitol Hill."

"You won't find him at the art gallery" on days off, Sullivan assured the jurors. "He'll put on boots and go out in the woods." Sullivan even tried the creative argument that his client sided with labor unions over big oil. "To heck with them!" Sullivan recalled the former Senate Commerce Committee chairman saying of his beloved energy companies.

Sullivan also said he would call to the witness stand "some people you will recognize," specifically mentioning Daniel Inouye, Orrin Hatch and the ailing Ted Kennedy. But that doesn't mean the defendant isn't an ordinary guy. "Those are the people he lives with," Sullivan said.

Another person Stevens lives with came in for rougher treatment. Catherine, his wife, was the one supposed to "keep track" of paying for the home renovation, Sullivan said. She took a "more substantive" role in the project. The scope of the work expanded when "the wife came in." Catherine "ran the financial part of the renovations," and the bills "were sent basically to Catherine."

And how about Uncle Ted? "The workhorse of the Senate," Sullivan said. "You don't get a title like that unless you're at the job every moment." Or at least every moment when you're not throwing your wife under the bus.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

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