The Fall Girl

Catherine Stevens was one unhappy camper in court.
Catherine Stevens was one unhappy camper in court. (Photos By Jose Luis Magana -- Associated Press)
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By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 17, 2008

Catherine Stevens had much to be unhappy about as she took the stand yesterday at the corruption trial of her husband, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

The stairs that were built for the Stevens chalet, gratis, by a company seeking help from the longtime Republican lawmaker? "I was extremely upset because they were very, very dangerous," she testified.

The huge stainless-steel grill that magically appeared on their deck? "I was very angry," she said. The armchair and ottoman they were given? "I was very unhappy when I saw it." The chairs? "Very upset." The black leather sofa? "Not to my taste." The puppy? "I was very concerned." The bronze fish statue? "It's very big and heavy." The massaging recliner from Brookstone? A "stupid chair."

Now Mrs. Stevens has a couple of more reasons to be unhappy. Her husband's lawyers were happy yesterday to let her take the fall, in part, for the senator's failure to disclose the gifts he received from the pipeline company Veco. And prosecutors, in their cross-examination, portrayed her and her husband as abusers of the senator's official staff.

"Did Barbara Flanders" -- one of the senator's aides -- "walk your dogs?" prosecutor Brenda Morris demanded of Catherine Stevens. "Did Barbara Flanders feed your cats? Did Barbara Flanders pay your Saks Fifth Avenue bills? Didn't staff for your husband cut your grass? Did they pay for your parking tickets? Did Barbara Flanders pay bills to Blockbuster video for overdue amounts? Did she wrap Christmas gifts for your family? Did you send notes to Barbara Flanders to tell her you needed cash? So, in essence, she was your human ATM machine?"

Mrs. Stevens ran her hands through her hair and struggled for answers ("I don't know what you're talking about") but came up mostly empty. And just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse for the Stevens family, Sen. Larry Craig walked into the courtroom after lunch and planted his wide stance in the audience to lend his support to his friend and colleague.

Ted Stevens, who succeeded his wife on the stand late yesterday and will give the bulk of his testimony today, demanded a rapid trial in hopes that an acquittal would allow him to win reelection next month to the Senate seat he has held for 40 years. But the strategy of the first sitting senator to go on trial in a generation has brought unwelcome consequences for his family, as the embarrassing details of a Washington power couple's private lives are detailed in the courtroom.

Catherine Stevens, a longtime power lawyer herself, described a life of hardship in Alaska. "We had no mail delivery," she told the jury. "We don't have trash collection. . . . We had really terrible rusty water." But for Stevens, dressed in a plain black outfit, the biggest hardship may well be her proud husband. How proud? The personal checks from the National Bank of Alaska that lawyers flashed on screens showed his name as "Senator Ted Stevens."

Stevens dutifully fell on her sword -- or attempted to -- for her husband. "I was going to be in charge of the renovations," she explained to the jury. "Ted was too busy. . . . He is the classic workaholic." But her story held together poorly. She claimed not to know that the people doing the work on her house were from Veco -- but she had one of her husband's Senate staffers send Veco the kitchen cabinet knobs she had bought at Restoration Hardware. Why didn't the Stevenses receive bills for the work being done? "We had a problem with the mail after 9/11," Catherine explained.

Prosecutors botched their case by withholding evidence from the defense and risking a mistrial. Now the defense is returning the favor by putting up witnesses more helpful to the prosecutors; a witness before Catherine Stevens railed about how he felt "waterboarded" by a "hateful" FBI agent, which explains why "so many innocent people are in prison."

In a sense, though, the legal back-and-forth became secondary to the intrigue about the senator and his wife. Catherine testified about her nickname for the 84-year-old lawmaker: "Oscar," from "The Odd Couple." "Sometimes he calls me Rosalee," she went on. "It's from a cowboy song." She went on to discuss their misadventures with Alaskan husky puppies, Taz and Kiely ("a lot of howling, a lot of pulling").

Defense lawyers tried to turn these homespun tales to the couple's advantage. Catherine took the jury through a map of Alaska and pointed out "a place called Chicken, because they couldn't spell the name of the state bird, which is Ptarmigan." She spoke of Ted's condo in Anchorage, "right above Bootleggers Cove."

But the folksiness did nothing to protect Catherine from a withering barrage from prosecutor Morris, who questioned her disdainfully about all the gifts the couple had received but Ted had not reported.

Why does the free furniture remain in the Alaska chalet? "Because I could not get Bill Allen to move his stuff out of there," Catherine explained, referring to Veco's former CEO, who pleaded guilty last year to bribing Alaska lawmakers. How about the massage chair they were given for their Washington home seven years ago? "It's still in Washington, D.C., to my great dissatisfaction," she answered.

Only one of the many gifts seemed to afford Catherine Stevens some much-needed happiness: a stained-glass window that hangs in the chalet. "Do you have any displeasure with that one?" Morris asked.

"I don't have any displeasure with it, no," she answered.

For a beleaguered power couple, it may have been the happiest moment of the day.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company