Contempt in Court

Sen. Ted Stevens proved prickly when he took the stand in his trial.
Sen. Ted Stevens proved prickly when he took the stand in his trial. (By Dana Verkouteren -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ted Stevens once told his Senate colleagues that he's "a mean, miserable SOB." Yesterday, he set out to prove it.

Taking the stand yesterday in his trial on corruption-related charges, the octogenarian Alaska Republican could not conceal his scorn for prosecutor Brenda Morris during her cross-examination.

Why did he keep letting the head of a pipeline company leave gifts in his house? "You're making a lot of assumptions that aren't warranted."

When did he find out that he had been given a new deck he hadn't asked for? "I'm not going to get into a numbers game -- you tell me what year you're asking about."

Why did he take free materials from Veco, an oil services company? "You're not listening to me. I answered it twice."

The retorts tumbling from his lips were far more interesting than the questions: "I think you better rephrase your question. That question is tautological. . . . I wonder what you're saying, ma'am. . . . What are you talking about? . . . Is that a question? I thought it was a statement."

Usually the judge intervenes to stop prosecutors from badgering a witness; yesterday, Judge Emmet Sullivan asked the witness to stop badgering the prosecutor. "Wait until she finishes her question," the judge told Stevens at one point.

Morris asked the irascible defendant if all the e-mails he sent asking for bills from the contractors were really just "covering your bottom."

"My bottom wasn't bare," the former Senate president pro tempore retorted. Even the prosecutor had to laugh at that line -- joining the jurors, who seemed to find comedy in the entire performance.

A sympathetic witness Stevens was not. Indeed, it's hard to imagine why defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan thought it was a good idea to have his client take the stand -- unless, of course, it was Stevens himself who insisted on fulfilling what he told the judge was "a privilege and a duty" to testify.

Whatever the reasoning, Stevens's presence on the stand seemed to only further weaken his contention that he meant to pay for all the gifts -- the deck, the grill, the Christmas lights, the furniture, the art, the puppy -- given to him by Veco's chief executive.

Morris asked him whether he checked with the Veco-employed architect about his fees. "I just ask them for their bill. That's the Alaska way: You ask him to do something and pay him for what he does."

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