By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
A federal jury today will begin deliberating two conflicting views of Sen. Ted Stevens, the powerful Alaska Republican charged with lying on financial disclosure forms to hide more than $250,000 in gifts and renovations to the Alaska house he affectionately calls his "chalet."
Defense lawyers, backed by a string of character witnesses, have portrayed Stevens, 84, as an honest public servant who conscientiously paid his bills, never lied on the forms and is the victim of overzealous authorities.
Prosecutors have argued that the senator is a miser who went to extraordinary lengths to hide free remodeling work financed by Veco, a now-defunct Alaska oil services company, and its top executive.
"This trial has exposed the truth about one of the longest-serving senators, the gifts he received and what he tried to conceal and the lengths he would go to keep his secrets hidden," said prosecutor Brenda Morris of the Justice Department's public integrity section.
"He didn't want to be known as the senator with the house that Veco built," she told jurors in U.S. District Court in Washington.
Brendan Sullivan, Stevens's attorney, countered that the prosecutors view the world through a "dirty glass" that makes the "whole world look dirty."
"They are trying to convict an innocent man on the interpretation of evidence that is so far from real life that it would make you sick," he said.
Indicted in July, Stevens requested a speedy trial in the hopes of clearing his name before the November elections. He is seeking a seventh full term in office.
He testified in his defense, contending that some of the expensive items the government calls "gifts" were merely lent to him, such as a $2,700 Brookstone massage chair stored in his basement.
Prosecutor Joseph Bottini of the U.S. attorney's office in Alaska hammered away at Stevens's credibility, calling his explanations "nonsense."
Bottini said Stevens turned to Bill Allen, a close friend and former chief executive of Veco, for help with the remodeling work for a simple reason. "The price is always right when it's free," he said.
"He was happy with Veco doing this even though they were the most improbable home contractor around," Bottini said. "He knew Bill Allen was wealthy. He knew Bill Allen was generous."
Allen, the prosecution's key witness, and Veco workers testified in detail about the transformation of Stevens's home from 2000 to 2002. The rustic house got a new first floor, two wraparound decks and a garage.
E-mails introduced as evidence showed that Stevens monitored the work through a friend who lived in town.
In closing arguments, Sullivan repeatedly returned to a letter that Stevens wrote to Allen in 2002, thanking the executive for the renovations and requesting a bill. Stevens wrote it after learning that Allen had decided, on his own, to add the first-floor deck, Sullivan said.
Prosecutors contend that Stevens was simply creating a paper trail to protect himself.
Saying that Stevens paid every bill his family received for remodeling work, Sullivan noted that the senator and his wife wrote $162,000 in checks to contractors for renovations and later saw the expense validated when the tax value of the house rose by $104,000.
Sullivan reminded jurors that former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) testified to his integrity.
The defense lawyer also criticized Allen, who has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. But Bottini said Allen was believable.
Bottini and Morris also repeatedly needled Stevens for not removing alleged gifts, including the massage chair.
"Does anyone really believe he thought that chair was a loan?" Bottini asked. "What were the terms of this loan? Zero percent interest for 84 months?"