By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008
A feisty Sen. Ted Stevens sparred with a federal prosecutor yesterday, testifying at his corruption trial that he always paid his bills and that an oil services company played no role in remodeling his Alaska house.
Stevens (Alaska), one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, took the witness stand in his own defense to counter charges that he lied on financial disclosure forms to hide more than $250,000 in gifts and renovations to his Girdwood house provided by a close friend, Bill Allen, who headed the now-defunct oil services company Veco.
Federal prosecutors have alleged that Stevens turned to Allen and Veco for the work because Stevens knew the labor would be free.
The 84-year-old lawmaker, who is running for reelection to a seventh full term, lived up to the combative reputation he has earned in Congress. A former prosecutor himself, Stevens repeatedly critiqued the way he was questioned by Justice Department attorney Brenda Morris.
"I am not going to get in a numbers game with you," he said at one point. "You are not listening to me," he said, criticizing another of her questions as "tautological."
Stevens's defense hinges on his ability to convince jurors that he never falsified the disclosure forms. His legal team, led by defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, has asserted that the senator and his wife paid $160,000 for work on the house -- a fair market price for the job. They have also said that Stevens's wife oversaw the project.
In many ways, the case will come down to whether jurors believe Stevens and his wife or Allen, who has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in a wide-ranging probe of corruption in Alaska politics. Allen has testified that he provided the workers and materials for much of the project, which started in 2000 and transformed a small cabin into a two-story house with two wraparound decks, a whirlpool and a garage.
Veco records show the company spent tens of thousands of dollars on labor and material, and Veco workers have testified about how they renovated the house on the firm's dime.
Stevens testified yesterday that he was unaware that Veco workers assigned to the remodeling project were on the company payroll. He said he enlisted Allen's help in 1999 to find him an architect and workers and paid the workers through a general contractor, which ran the project. The contractor testified that he reported to a Veco foreman and Allen.
Stevens conceded that, in hindsight, there was "a lot more intersection with Bill Allen than we thought" in the renovation. But, he added, "Bill Allen is not Veco. We never used Veco on this project. Bill Allen was a friend" who helped line up laborers.
Stevens said that Allen told "an absolute lie" when he testified that Stevens repeatedly asked for invoices to cover himself if questions were later raised about the work.
In 1999, Stevens began talking to Allen about jacking his house up on stilts to add a second floor. Stevens said he did not obtain contracts with an architect, who was a Veco employee and provided the plans for the renovations. Stevens also did not have contracts with any others on the project, because "that's the Alaska way."
"Somebody does something for you, you pay him for what he did," he said.