By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska took the witness stand in his own defense yesterday and immediately denied charges that he lied on financial disclosure forms to conceal gifts and extensive home renovations he received from a business executive.
The powerful Republican's denials capped an extraordinary day in his trial that also featured his wife's testimony. Within moments of the 84-year-old Stevens taking the stand, his attorney rapidly asked three questions at the heart of the case.
"Senator, when you signed those financial disclosure forms, did you believe them to be accurate and truthful?" asked the lawyer, Brendan Sullivan.
"Yes, sir," Stevens replied.
"Did you intentionally file false financial disclosure forms?"
"No, I did not."
"Did you ever scheme to conceal anything from the Senate?"
Stevens, the first U.S. senator to face trial in more than two decades, is accused of filing false Senate documents to disguise receiving more than $250,000 in gifts and remodeling work on his house in Girdwood, Alaska, between 1999 and 2006. Justice Department prosecutors have alleged that many of the gifts and renovation work were financed by Bill Allen, a close friend of Stevens's and the head of the now-defunct oil services company Veco.
Stevens asked Allen and his laborers to do the project because the senator knew he could get the work done free, prosecutors have said.
Stevens's legal team has said the senator and his wife paid every bill they received, about $160,000 worth. Most of that money went to a residential construction firm, Christensen Builders, which was brought onto the project by Allen. The Stevenses thought they paid a fair market price for the work, their attorneys have said.
Stevens is expected to continue testifying today. The trial should conclude by this afternoon, with closing arguments scheduled for Monday.
Taking the stand shortly before the end of the day, Stevens traced his background, from his impoverished upbringing and his service as a World War II pilot to his appointment to the Senate in 1968. Stevens is the chamber's longest-serving Republican. His first wife died in a plane crash in 1978, and he married his second wife, Catherine, in 1980.
Allen, a star prosecution witness who has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in a wide-ranging corruption probe of Alaska politics, has testified that Stevens never paid him for the work. He said his company did the work free because he liked Stevens.
Veco records indicate that the company spent tens of thousands of dollars in labor and material on the Stevenses' home from 2000 through 2002. Veco workers have testified they helped transform a small cabin into two-story house with a garage, a whirlpool and two wraparound decks.
Catherine Stevens told jurors that she was in charge of the remodeling job on their home, which she and the senator call "the chalet." She said she was not aware that Allen was footing much of the bill or assigning his employees to renovate the house.
"To my knowledge, Veco did not do work on the chalet," she testified, adding that her husband was a "workaholic" who was too busy to devote time to the renovation.
She said she thought two Veco employees, who spent hundreds of hours laboring at the house, were working for Christensen Builders. She wrote the contractor a series of checks totaling about $132,000 and testified that she thought the money covered the work by the Veco workers.
Allen brought Christensen Builders onto the project in 2000 to help with concrete and carpentry work, according to trial testimony.
Under cross-examination by Justice Department prosecutor Brenda Morris, Catherine Stevens acknowledged that she never received an estimate or had a contract with Christensen Builders.
She testified that she was so impressed by Veco employee Robert "Rocky" Williams's work that she sent him two airline tickets and a $2,000 check. She mailed them to a Veco office, she acknowledged.
She also told jurors she did not know which workers added a new first-floor deck in 2002. Allen and his employees have testified that his laborers provided the work and material for that job. Stevens wrote two letters to Allen in 2002, asking him to send bills for the new deck.
Allen has testified that a mutual friend, Bob Persons, told him to ignore the requests because Stevens was "just covering" himself to avoid ethics trouble.
Persons, who monitored the work for the Stevenses, has denied saying that. He testified yesterday that he told Allen that he should send Stevens the invoices. That testimony came about 30 minutes after he told jurors that he did not recall Stevens asking him to pester Allen for the bills. He never received an invoice either, he testified.
Persons sent the Stevenses e-mails lauding Allen and Williams for their efforts. He read an e-mail yesterday in which he told Stevens not to be too concerned by media inquiries in 2004 about Veco's role in the 2002 deck job. He told Stevens that Christensen did the work, and he did not mention Allen or Veco in the e-mail.
In a second e-mail that same day, Persons added that he and Allen were "fully documented."
"You weren't trying to cover anyone's butt here, were you?" asked prosecutor Nicholas Marsh.
"Nah," Persons said.