By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
In his final appearance on the witness stand, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) yesterday denied lying on financial disclosure forms to hide gifts, including a lavish massage chair and hot-water faucets.
The senator, who testified earlier that he never received free home renovations, told jurors in his federal corruption trial that he wished he had called police when a business executive replaced furniture in his Alaska home with bulky items damaged by cigarette burns.
Stevens, 84, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, added that he tried to refuse the $2,700 massage chair as a gift from another friend in 2001. The Brookstone chair remains in the basement of his Washington home -- on loan, Stevens said.
"We have lots of things in our house that don't belong to us," said Stevens, who is seeking reelection to a seventh full term. "I let him put it in our basement at his request."
Although dour at times, Stevens was less confrontational than he has been in previous testimony. He was the last witness in his month-long trial on charges that he lied on financial disclosure forms to hide more than $250,000 in gifts and renovations to his house in Girdwood, Alaska, from 1999 through 2006. The Justice Department alleges that many of the gifts and renovations were financed by an oil services company or its top executive, Bill Allen, the government's chief witness.
Closing arguments are scheduled for today, and jurors could start deliberations as early as tomorrow. Prosecutors have not introduced any evidence that appears to be a "smoking gun." Instead, they have relied on a treasure trove of e-mails and handwritten notes and on testimony from Allen to build a circumstantial case that the senator tried to hide gifts and renovations from public scrutiny.
Through e-mails between Stevens and a family friend from 2000 to 2002, prosecutors have tried to show that Stevens was aware of the progress of renovations on his home. In the e-mails, the friend, who lived in Girdwood and kept an eye on the job for Stevens, lauded Allen and one of his Veco employees for their efforts.
Veco employees testified that they performed extensive work on the house, which Stevens calls "the chalet," and said they were paid by their company, not the senator. Veco records estimated that the firm spent tens of thousands of dollars on the project, which doubled the size of a small cabin by adding a new first floor, two wraparound decks, a garage and a whirlpool.
Prosecutors also presented handwritten notes in which the senator requested bills from Allen for remodeling work. They argue the notes show that Stevens was trying to create a paper trail, pointing to Allen's testimony that a mutual friend told him to ignore the lawmaker's requests because the lawmaker was just "covering" himself to avoid ethics problems.
Jurors heard tape recordings of calls between Stevens and Allen in 2006. On one call, Stevens told Allen that, at worst, they could expect a fine and maybe some jail time if convicted.
Stevens's attorneys contend the evidence supports their argument that the senator paid every bill he received, that he requested invoices and that he was not aware Veco played a role in the work.
Stevens testified that he paid all of the laborers through a contractor, brought onto the job by Allen. His wife wrote that contractor about $132,000 in checks, records show. The couple paid other contractors about $30,000, the senators' attorneys have said.
Stevens testified that he never sought free gifts and tried to return many of them.
Defense lawyers also have pointed out that Stevens repeatedly denied any wrongdoing on tape-recorded phone calls. They have attacked Allen's credibility, noting that he pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in a broad probe of political corruption in Alaska.