By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Ted Stevens has sat on many things during his 40 years in the Senate.
The 84-year-old Alaskan has had a seat on the commerce committee longer than any Republican in history, he boasted during his trial on corruption-related charges. He also sat on the Senate committees on appropriations, rules, governmental affairs and ethics -- in the chairman's seat, no less. As the former Senate president pro tempore, he sat frequently in the presiding officer's chair. And Stevens, the longest-sitting Republican in the Senate, often rests his haunches at his center-aisle desk on the Senate floor.
But what got Stevens in trouble was another seat he chose to occupy: a $2,695 vibrating Shiatsu massage lounger from Brookstone.
And that has set up perhaps the cruelest irony in the whole sad Stevens trial: The chairman is in danger of being unseated by a chair.
Prosecutor Brenda Morris, toward the end of her cross-examination of the senator yesterday, settled in for a long discussion about the chair, which Alaska restaurateur Bob Persons bought for Stevens as a gift seven years ago -- but which Stevens never reported on his Senate disclosure forms.
"And the chair is still at your house?" Morris asked.
"Yes," Stevens conceded.
"How is that not a gift?"
"He bought that chair as a gift, but I refused it as a gift," Stevens explained. "He put it there and said it was my chair. I told him I would not accept it as a gift."
"Where is that chair now?"
"In our house," Stevens repeated. "We have lots of things in our house that don't belong to us, ma'am."
And that's supposed to help his case?
It's not your average trial when the case rests on a massage chair. But Stevens's trial has been all about such penny-ante gifts: a deck, landscape lighting, furniture, a puppy, a tool cabinet, a stained-glass window, even a heavy steel statue of migrating salmon. In his combative testimony Friday and yesterday, Stevens seemed furious that such matters might dethrone a sitting senator -- and the absurdity of his defense (gifts don't count as gifts if he doesn't like them) seems to have landed him in more jeopardy than the disjointed case presented by the prosecution.
"It was not my property," he said of the fish statue that still resides at his home, "because I told them I didn't want it." Neither did he want the jumbo electric generator outside his Alaska home: "I requested a generator, not that generator."
The chair -- which comes with electronic intensity control and programs for Shiatsu, deep-tissue and Swedish massage, isn't the most valuable goody in the trial, but it may be the most difficult for Stevens to justify. In her opening argument, Morris told the jury about the "expensive massage chair from Brookstone -- you know, that gadget store you see in all the malls." Persons himself testified that he gave the chair to Stevens as a gift, not a loan. And while both Stevens and his wife, Catherine, said they didn't want the chair ("this stupid chair," as Catherine described it), they had a great deal of trouble explaining why they kept it.
As Stevens took the stand to explain his seat yesterday, his answers fell into the dog-ate-my-homework category.
"There's no question it was his chair," Stevens said of Persons. "It's quite similar to that barbecue that's on our deck -- it's still Bill Allen's barbecue." That would be the jumbo stainless-steel Viking grill given to him by the disgraced head of oil services company Veco that is at the center of the trial.
Kneading all she could out of the massage chair, the prosecutor asked: "So, if you say it's not a gift, it's not a gift?"
"I refused it as a gift," the chair man said. "I let him put it in our basement at his request." Besides, Stevens said, "I've had three back operations, ma'am. I do not use that chair."
Alas for the sitting senator, the exhibits in the case tell a different story about where his posterior has been. "The CHAIR arrived and I tried it out last night," Stevens wrote in an e-mail to Persons in March 2001. "It is great: I can't tell you have [sic] much I enjoyed it. Catherine and Beth tried to get me out of it, I just went to sleep in it. Thank you and thanks to Bill. It will be a godsend this year. It is just a loan; but, I really appreciate it being here now."
The prosecutor shared that e-mail with the jury. "But you kept it," she charged.
"It's still there," Stevens acknowledged.
He fared no better explaining how the chair arrived. "I wasn't there when it got unpacked," the senator said. "I don't know how it got in the house." (Apparently he forgot about the e-mail in which he wrote to a Senate aide: "Yes deliver it. . . . I'd like it in the big room downstairs.")
Nor did he have an excuse for failing to return the chair over seven years. "I was planning to send a whole bunch of things back," he explained. "But Bill Allen" -- that's the Veco pipeline guy -- "stole our furniture."
Uh-huh. "Why didn't you call the police when Bill Allen stole your furniture?" Morris needled.
"It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time," Stevens replied. "I might now."
The prosecutor tried to put the senator on the proverbial couch about the vibrating furniture. "Isn't it a fact that you're calling it a loan when it's actually your chair?" she coaxed.
"It's not my chair," Stevens repeated.
For a senator on the stand over a seat, it was time to rest his case. Fortunately, he has a chocolate-brown Shiatsu massage lounger at home.
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this column.