By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
A federal judge scolded prosecutors yesterday for sending a potentially important witness in the trial of Sen. Ted Stevens back to Alaska, a move that defense lawyers asserted was intended to hide exculpatory evidence.
"The government is treading in some very shallow water," U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan told prosecutors from the Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity. "I am just flabbergasted."
Stevens (Alaska), one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, is on trial in Washington on charges that he lied on financial disclosure forms to hide accepting $250,000 in gifts and extensive renovations to his home in Girdwood, near Anchorage. Prosecutors allege that a large part of the renovations and many of the gifts were financed or overseen by Veco, a now-defunct oil services company.
Reacting to a defense motion to throw out the case, Sullivan said he was distressed to learn that prosecutors had allowed Robert "Rocky" Williams, a former Veco employee, to return to Alaska last week even though he had been subpoenaed to testify. Williams's name has come up during testimony by construction workers and a bookkeeper who have said Williams worked or supervised others at Stevens's home in 2000 and 2001.
Sullivan rejected the defense request but asked both sides to submit court papers arguing whether he should sanction prosecutors.
The Justice Department lawyers apologized for sending Williams home without alerting defense attorneys or the judge. They did not disclose why Williams returned to Alaska but alluded to personal or health problems. They said they no longer thought they needed him to prove the case.
Stevens's attorneys argued that prosecutors acted when they discovered that they were not happy with his testimony. They alleged that prosecutors were withholding exculpatory evidence about Williams's work for Veco and at Stevens's home that Williams provided to investigators. The defense lawyers said they learned about the evidentiary problems when they spoke to Williams by telephone Sunday.
He told them that prosecutors overstated how much time he spent at Stevens's home, the lawyers said in court documents and at a brief hearing. On Friday, prosecutors introduced Veco financial statements showing that Williams had spent more than 1,000 hours working on Stevens's house, often six or seven days a week.
The cost for Williams's time was included in documents showing that Veco spent $188,000 in labor, material and equipment rentals to renovate the home in 2000 and 2001. Prosecutors say that Stevens never reimbursed those costs, though they told jurors that the $188,000 was not a precise figure.
Defense attorneys said Williams's information would have allowed them to better question workers and a Veco bookkeeper who testified Thursday and Friday. They are trying to undermine the reliability of the documents and witnesses and show that the $188,000 was an inflated figure.
They have argued that the senator and his wife paid about $160,000 funneled through Veco by a subcontractor. Stevens believed that he paid a fair market price for all the work that was done, they have said.
The senator's top lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, has blamed the "deviousness" of a critical prosecution witness, former Veco chief executive Bill Allen, for other potential costs. Allen could testify as early as today.
Although he did not dismiss the charges, the judge recalled the bookkeeper, Cheryl Boomershine, to the stand yesterday to be cross-examined by defense attorneys. She testified that she did not know what Williams was doing during his work hours.
Boomershine is one of 12 witnesses who have testified since Thursday. The others have been construction workers, electricians and carpenters who performed work on Stevens's home from 1999 through 2002. They have described in great detail how they jacked up the house on stilts to add a new first floor, built a deck and installed heat tape to prevent snow buildup on the roof. Two men testified about installing a powerful generator.
Another testified how a forklift was used to put a bronze statue of migrating salmon on the front porch. An electrician testified yesterday that he was asked to install a switch to make it easier for Stevens to turn on lights illuminating the sculpture because the senator was "maturing, getting a little bit older."
"Sorry, sir," he said, looking at Stevens.