Friday, October 31, 2008
A number of people have said nice things about this blog’s coverage of the Ted Stevens trial, and
I thank each of you have left comments or sent e-mails.
I also want to express my appreciation to those who made that coverage possible. Before the trial started, I knew essentially none of the more than 25 reporters, correspondents, and television producers who brought this major event to the public. A number of them were veterans in covering the Washington scene, and some took the time to show me the ropes around the courthouse and gave me tips about the area. I spoke about this case with many of these journalists—some from D.C. and some from Alaska—and those discussions sharpened my thinking and improved this blog.
So—at the risk of making this sound like the Oscars—I particularly want to thank Rick Schmitt of the Los Angeles Times; John Bresnahan and Marty Kady of the Politico; Brian Hughes of the Scripps Howard Foundation; Brent Kendall of the Wall Street Journal; Matt Apuzzo, Jesse Holland, and Tom Hays of the Associated Press; Rich Mauer and Erika Bolstad of the Anchorage Daily News and McClatchy Newspapers; Carl Sears of NBC News; Paul Singer and Jennifer Yachnin of Roll Call; Libby Casey of the Alaska Public Radio Network; Cary O’Reilly of Bloomberg News; Jill Burke of KTUU-TV; Kate Hunter of Congressional Quarterly; Paul Courson of CNN; Manu Raju of The Hill; Fred Graham of In Session; Tom Ramstack of the Washington Times; Del Quentin Wilber and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post; Jason Ryan of ABC News; Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio; and Deirdre Hester of CBS News.
The efforts of all the journalists covering the trial impressed me particularly because I was struck by how difficult it was to write quickly and accurately for daily publication. I have never worked harder and under more pressure for such a long period as I have in covering this five-week trial. I marvel at those who do this job regularly with insight and style.
The production of high-quality work is particularly noteworthy given these tough times for the media business. American newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and advertising, and cutbacks have come across the country. Both print publications and TV newscasts face pressures from the Internet as many people—particularly the young—go online to get news and information. Threats of layoffs stalk even some of the fine journalists who have covered this trial.
Given all that, the many kindnesses these dedicated and hard-pressed professionals showed an amateur like me showed generosity indeed.
Although the business environment for journalism ranges from tricky to grim, the working conditions for the media at the courthouse were sweet. Shelly Snook and Jenna Gatski are the court employees responsible for helping journalists, and they are two of the most pleasant and efficient people you could hope to meet.
Final thanks go to six other people who made possible this blog’s coverage of the trial. Terry Gardiner marries the inspirational and the practical in one high-energy package. He edited most of my posts, and is responsible for much of what is good about this blog and little of what is not.
Terry and his wife Linda—both former Alaskans—made my coverage of this trial possible by moving to a Capitol Hill apartment a mile from the courthouse just before jury selection started. I was very lucky to have nicely cooked dinners waiting for me every night upon my return from court. Linda’s common sense and good cheer were very helpful in keeping Terry and me grounded during a high-stress period.
Tony Hopfinger of the Alaska Dispatch (http://www.alaskadispatch.com/) published a number of the posts from this blog’s coverage of the trial.
Laura McGann of the Washington Independent and my sister Betsy Ptak both encouraged me to start blogging during this trial, and both gave me useful suggestions in how to do it.
And the first and most persistent person to suggest that I start blogging was the fabulous Theresa Philbrick, who helped publicize this blog by sending it around to journalists and provided valuable long-distance encouragement and advice.
OK, enough sentiment.
Next up: Who else will face Justice in the ongoing federal investigation into public corruption in Alaska?
Thursday, October 30, 2008
It appears that McCain’s call for Stevens’ resignation forced Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to fall in line. Her initial public statement skirted the issue and did not call for Stevens to resign.
McCain and Palin have promoted as a central issue in their Presidential campaign their opposition to earmarking in the federal budget and castigated Senator Obama for his earmarking. Sen. Obama is of course a piker when standing alongside the legendary king of earmarks Ted Stevens. This and many other factors likely played into the McCain camp feeling they had to throw Ted Stevens under the Straight Talk Express Bus.
Most of the national Republicans that have joined in asking for Stevens to resign are facing tough re-election campaigns. Evidently they feel they cannot afford to support their colleague and must instead save their hide. Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii—Stevens’ best friend in the Senate and a character witness at his trial—has maintained his consistent support for Senator Stevens.
In Alaska, Republican officials both from the Party and elected officials are standing behind Senator Stevens. Democrats in Alaska have been subdued in their response, which says mountains about the special esteem that Alaskans hold Senator Stevens in. The Anchorage Daily News has recommended in an editorial that Stevens step down, but has presented a carefully reasoned line of logic centered on the Senator’s “bad judgment” and did not hang their hat on a conviction by a D.C. jury. Conviction by a jury of distant non-Alaskans does not carry much weight with many Alaskans.
Many Alaskans would likely relish being chosen as jurors to sit as “a jury of peers” for these Senators that have chosen to dump on Senator Ted.
Administrative Note: Tirebiter's posts will appear in Arial font, while Cliff Groh's posts will continue to appear in Georgia font.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Although the verdict in the Ted Stevens trial--and the fact that I didn't post yesterday--may lead a reader to conclude that the blog is finished, that conclusion would be dead wrong. This blog will keep going and follow the Alaska corruption scandals to their conclusion. The federal investigation(s) in the Last Frontier will produce a number of other indictments and trials.
Thanks for all the support, and I really appreciate your thoughtful feedback. Keep those electronic cards and letters coming, folks.
My next several topics will include:
· What happens next in Ted Stevens' case (appeals, campaign, political maneuvering)
· Other targets in the investigation and possible new indictments
· Analysis of closing arguments in the Ted Stevens trial
· Winner(s) of the closing argument quiz contest
The next trial arising out of the Alaska public corruption scandals is that of Alaska Sen. John Cowdery, R.-Anch., which is now scheduled for January. There will be other developments before then, however. Stay tuned.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 26
This is really the day that seemed impossible.
The jury convicted U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens on all seven counts of concealing free benefits on his Senate ethics forms over a half-dozen years.
The jury foreman read the verdicts at approximately 4 p.m. today in a packed courtroom in Washington, D.C.—verdicts that cast a terrible pall on a six-decade career of a public servant whose worst enemies would say had done much good for Alaska.
Ted Stevens took it stoically, although his face reddened. Lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan moved closer to his client and touched him consolingly.
It was a stunningly swift end to a month-long trial, especially since the court had only this morning brought in a new juror from standby status as a replacement for a juror who had left due to a family emergency.
It only took minutes for the conviction to reverberate across the continent to Alaska and back.
This verdict is a national headline, not just front page news in Alaska on the eight-day homestretch to Election Day. Pundits, bloggers, pollsters, and political commentators are all guessing and spinning the consequences of the Alaska Republican’s eleventh-hour conviction.
The fight over Stevens’ seat is one of a handful of key races that control of the U.S. Senate hinges on. Democrats have long sought 60 votes to prevent Senate filibusters, and the possibility that turning back Stevens’ bid for a seventh full term would produce that 60th vote had helped rivet the country’s attention on this trial. “Ted Stevens’ conviction the crowning blow in a bad year for GOP senators” was the headline on a blog post on the Los Angeles Times website.
Whatever the effects on national politics, this event drew the attention of all those interested in the Senate and in the Last Frontier. It was the first federal trial of a sitting U.S. Senator in a quarter-century, and the defendant was “the Alaskan of the Century,” the man some say is most
responsible for shaping the 49th state.
Why a Conviction on All Seven Counts?
Several key factors stand out as likely contributing to the jury’s conviction of Sen. Stevens on all seven counts brought by the U.S. Department of Justice:
1. The low thresholds in the annual reporting requirements turned out to make this an easy case to prove—at least to a jury composed of people from Washington, D.C.
The indictment charged Sen. Stevens with intentionally concealing his receipt of more than $250,000 in benefits over a period of more than six years. The law Sen. Stevens was charged with violating, however, had limits far lower than that figure. That law made it a felony to intentionally fail to disclose benefits worth $260 in some years, $285 in one year, and $305 in other years. That’s a pitifully low bar to clear. As one observer noted, the prosecution could have proved the failure to disclose by presenting only three days of evidence, not the two weeks the government did put before the jury.
To many Alaskans, the charges in the indictment seemed incredible on their face. People who were used to the many good things Stevens had done for or brought to Alaska—and had heard many stories about his well-known intelligence and diligence—could not believe that he would try to hide ill-gotten gains on his house renovation or other gifts totaling a quarter of a million dollars.
Those Alaskans weren’t on the jury, however. The jury was instead composed of Washingtonians, people used to hearing about the rules imposed on government employees whether or not they worked for the government themselves. Washington juries have a tradition of being hard on public officials accused of official wrongdoing.
Posted near one of the entrances to this massive courthouse is the Code of Ethics for Government Service. Rule V of the 10-point code directs any person in government service “[n]ever to accept for himself or herself or for any family members, favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of public duties.”
Congress adopted this code by passing a statute in 1980 in the same wave of post-Watergate reforms that included the Ethics in Government Act, the law that the jury convicted Ted Stevens of violating (and a law that he voted for himself).
2. The critical question in this case was all about what was in Ted Stevens’ mind. The guilty verdicts on all seven counts made it clear that the jury saw him as a liar who schemed to get hundreds of thousands of dollars of benefits for free.
That Ted Stevens got these various things of value was never an issue. His house in Girdwood got a whole new bottom floor, decks, furniture, a professional gas grille, a tool chest with new tools, plumbing repairs, and a variety of other benefits that were provided partly or entirely by the oil-services firm VECO and its long-time CEO Bill Allen, and Stevens never paid VECO or Allen anything for those benefits. The prosecution exhaustively proved that Stevens received these valuable things, and the defense never disputed that he got them.
The defense was that under the law Stevens was not guilty of any crime because he did not intend to conceal his receipt of the benefits. The defense argued vigorously that as to some benefits (like the decks, the staircase, and other renovations) Stevens never knew that VECO or Allen provided those items. As to other benefits (such as the grille, the furniture, and the tool chest), the defense contended that Stevens never considered them his property.
By its seven guilty verdicts, it was obvious that the jury completely rejected the defense’s arguments. It wasn’t just that the jury convicted Stevens for failing to report for each of the years from 2000 to 2006—including one year in which the only gift he appeared to get was a runty husky. No, the clearest proof of that total rejection came when the jury convicted him of Count I, the charge that he knowingly engaged in a scheme to conceal his receipt of gifts from VECO and Allen—a scheme that ran for more than six years.
This blogger had thought that Stevens’ biggest problems were on the two counts that focused on the home renovations in 2000-2001 and on the construction of the lower deck in 2002, and it seemed to several trial watchers that there might be a split decision on the various counts. The jury’s conviction on all seven counts, however, showed a complete acceptance of the government’s case.
3. The judge made a number of rulings over defense objection to let in evidence that appears to have hurt Ted Stevens badly.
At the beginning of the government’s opening closing argument last Tuesday, federal prosecutor Joe Bottini played an FBI tape of Ted Stevens’ friend Bob Persons telling Bill Allen that “Ted gets hysterical when he has to spend his own money. The flip side of it he can’t really afford to pay a bunch of money.”
The defense fought hard to keep the jury from hearing this tape and another surreptitiously recorded conversation between Persons and Allen, attacking that evidence as irrelevant, excessively prejudicial, and “triple hearsay.”
The reason for that fierce objection is obvious: The Persons-Allen conversations put a big dent in Ted Stevens’ defense. It’s not just the line quoted above, which suggests that Stevens’ best friends saw the Senator as a penny-pincher living beyond his means who might want to get wealthy friends to bestow benefits on him. Hearing a portion of that tape probably reminded the jury of the unreal tone of the Persons-Allen conversations, where people work hard to prevent a friend from having to pay his plumbing bill and also spend substantial time thinking about a good investment for him.
The judge’s decision to allow the jury to hear those tapes of the Persons-Allen conversations will be just one of many points on appeal that will be urged by Stevens’ defense team at the law firm of Williams & Connolly. Along with other disputed evidentiary rulings—such as the rulings that let in evidence of “bad acts” of Stevens other than those he was charged with—the defense will certainly attack the judge’s failure to declare a mistrial after the judge made findings in the middle of trial that the prosecution had failed to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense.
The problem for Ted Stevens, however, is not just that every lawyer knows that it’s better to win the trial than to count on a successful appeal (which in any case would almost certainly only bring a new trial, not dismissal of the charges). It’s not just that an appeal will take many months if not years, and he is running a very tough re-election race with Election Day only eight days away. Ted Stevens’ biggest problem may be that a man turning 85 next month has a different timeline than younger people.
4. The prosecutors turned out to be the equal of the superstar Brendan Sullivan and the top-flight Williams & Connolly firm.
A trial is not just a play, where what really matters is the skill of the actors. But a trial is in part a play, and Williams & Connolly’s star value has been known for decades. An illustration of that firm’s prowess appears on the ground floor of this courthouse, where an exhibit celebrates Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa’s acquittal of bribery in 1957 following a defense by “famed attorney Edward Bennett Williams.”
Williams was the founder of the firm that bears his name, and his performance in the Hoffa case is one of the cornerstones of his legacy as a legendary trial attorney. In a case where the government had videotape of his client paying money to the key witness, Williams beat the prosecutors like they were rented mules, with the jury coming back with not guilty verdicts after only three and a half hours of deliberation. The defeat was so total that a newspaper columnist wrote that “To watch Williams and then to watch a Department of Justice attorney contending with him is to understand the essential superiority of free enterprise to government ownership.”
Things have changed in the last 50 years. The Williams & Connolly firm has had other great successes, and lead Stevens lawyer Brendan Sullivan is Williams’ protégé. Today, however, federal prosecutors can hold their own against the best of the private bar. Chief prosecutor Brenda Morris did particularly well in her cross-examination of Catherine Stevens and in her rebuttal closing argument, and clearly connected better with this jury than Sullivan did. Fellow prosecutors Nicholas Marsh and Joe Bottini also mounted effective cross-examinations of defense witnesses, and Bottini’s opening closing argument was solid and well-done.
All the lawyers in this case worked like dogs during a trial with a breakneck pace. Victory has got to be particularly sweet for these prosecutors, who had their integrity questioned by the judge during the blow-ups over the discovery violations and consequently had to report themselves to the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility. Standing with her colleagues and her boss in the rain at the prosecution’s outdoor post-trial press conference, chief prosecutor Brenda Morris permitted herself a small smile. It would be very surprising if she didn’t have at least one drink tonight.
5. The defense strategies of pushing for a speedy trial and mounting a fact-based defense—particularly one featuring Sen. Stevens’ testimony—seem to have backfired.
The first bold move by the defense was to demand an amazingly early trial by all standard rules of white-collar criminal defense. This case went to trial less than two months after the issuance of the indictment, when under normal practice it would have taken maybe nine to 12 months. The defense’s stated reason was to give Stevens a chance to clear his name before the election, but another advantage some veteran lawyers saw was that it forced the prosecution to go to trial faster than it might have expected.
In the trial’s early stages, the defense’s push for speed seemed shrewd, as the haste appeared to contribute to the various failures of the prosecution to turn over exculpatory evidence. It’s also possible, however, that the defense could have come up with even more creative arguments if it had more time to examine the evidence and research the law.
The more questionable move, though, seems to have been the decision to defend on the facts, particularly by having the defendant waive his constitutional right not to testify. Throughout much of the trial, the defense was scoring by pointing out the prosecution’s unforced errors, and even got the judge to tell the jury that some evidence was being excluded because of the government’s failure to meet its obligations.
The defense also appeared to do well in its presentation of character witnesses for the defendant, particularly former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gwen Sykes, a former Senate staff aide for Stevens who became Chief Financial Officer for Yale University. These were people who had worked closely with Stevens who could testify to his honesty and reputation for probity, and the fact that they were African-American certainly didn’t hurt with this predominantly black jury.
What was striking to many observers, however, was how the defense case seemed to go into reverse when it presented its key witnesses on the facts of the case. The prosecution gained significant ground through its cross-examination of contractor Augie Paone, Stevens’ friend Bob Persons, Stevens’ wife Catherine Stevens, and Ted Stevens himself. Paone agreed with some of the government’s key contentions, Persons seemed shifty, Catherine Stevens came off as a witness who contradicted herself and seemed excessively entitled, and Ted Stevens looked like an angry and arrogant man who couldn’t explain away some of the most damaging allegations against him.
Would the defense have done better to just rely on the witnesses who proclaimed Ted Stevens’ sterling character? It’s obviously impossible to run a scientific experiment. Not calling either Catherine or Ted Stevens to testify, however, would have prevented some testimony that seemed to damage the defense with this solidly middle-class jury. Some of that evidence came when the prosecution’s cross-examination of Catherine Stevens got her to admit that despite making close to $500,000 per year, she used the Senator’s staff to pay some of her credit card bills (apparently including accounts at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus) as well as some utility bills.
The most critical decision, however, was obviously having Ted Stevens testify, which changed the whole framework of how the jury saw the case. As one observer pointed out, it’s only possible to make the jury choose between trusting Colin Powell and trusting Bill Allen if Ted Stevens never takes the stand. Once the defendant testified, the jury appeared to focus on whether what he said made sense as opposed to whether Bill Allen had made stuff up to curry favor with prosecutors.
Ted Stevens’ testimony was so problematic for the defense that more than one observer wondered if the defendant had insisted on taking the stand over his lawyers’ advice.
Two Other Observations
1. Don Young is sweating tonight.
As first reported in the Wall Street Journal, Alaska’s sole member of the U.S. House is facing his own federal criminal investigation. Rep. Don Young has spent more than a million dollars in legal fees to fight off this investigation. The 18-term Alaska Republican’s long-time close ties to VECO make it likely that any prosecution of him will feature some of the same witnesses that helped convict Stevens, including Bill Allen. Seeing Ted Stevens go down on all counts based in part on Allen’s testimony has got to give Young a bad feeling that goes beyond his fears about what may happen in the very competitive election he faces next week.
2. This verdict is a tragedy on so many levels.
After receiving an incredibly aggressive and expensive defense, Ted Stevens stands convicted on seven felony counts by a jury that heard a month’s worth of evidence and argument. That’s how our system works, and as a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Senator for 40 years Stevens knows that system well.
This is still a very sad day, given how hard Ted Stevens has worked for Alaska for the last half-century and how much he has accomplished. I just wish that somehow history could have taken a couple of different turns that would have prevented this outcome today.
One turn could have occurred when Ted Stevens came up for re-election in 1996. By that point he was 72 years old and had been in the Senate for 28 years. No one could have begrudged him if he had announced his retirement and then gone into what surely would have been a highly lucrative lobbying career. It would have meant that he would have missed the opportunity to do great things for Alaska as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as all the power and glory that comes with that position. But he also would have avoided the humiliation and stain of this day.
Yet another turn could have happened in 1998, as he was getting closer and closer to Bill Allen, the man he let bring him down. If only Ted Stevens would have listened to someone he trusted and respected, someone who would have told him “You have to keep your distance from Bill Allen. He’s walking trouble. Take his campaign contributions and tell him which other campaigns should get his contributions. But don’t hang out with him, don’t go on vacations with him, don’t do any business deals with him, and don’t put him in a position where he could compromise you.”
The first path obviously never got taken, and maybe Ted Stevens never got or never availed himself of a chance to take that second path. I wish he had.
As a practical matter, the outcomes of this trial fall into three categories:
1. Acquittal on all counts (also known as “Stevens walks” or “pure acquittal”)
2. Hung jury on all counts
3. Conviction on at least one count
It appears that Outcome # 1 above—a pure acquittal—is the least likely result of this trial. The other two outcomes—a jury unable to decide on any of the seven counts and a conviction on at least one count—now seem about equally likely. The prediction would have been different when the case went to the jury last Wednesday, when this blog would have wagered on
conviction on at least one count. But the intervening difficulties arising within the jury have seemed to have marginally increased the odds of a hung jury.
Once again, please recall that this prediction comes from the same blogger who confidently announced that Ted Stevens would never testify in his own defense.
(Thanks go to loyal reader Betsy Ptak, who has frequently urged that the blog post a prediction before the jury returned a verdict.)
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Judge Emmet Sullivan holds a hearing Sunday evening on the status of Juror # 4 that starts a few minutes after its scheduled start at 6 p.m.
The judge recapitulates the situation: Juror # 4 advised the court on Thursday evening that she was heading to California to attend her father’s funeral, and the judge scheduled this hearing to determine if that juror could return to Washington in a reasonable time and in a reasonable frame of mind to resume deliberations.
Judge Sullivan discloses that despite repeated attempts by court staff, there had no contact with Juror # 4 since Thursday evening. After suggesting that he is leaning towards replacing Juror # 4 with Alternate Juror # 1, the judge asks the parties for their views on what he should do.
The defense asks the court to not replace the juror with the alternate but instead proceed with a jury of 11, as explicitly allowed under the law. The defense cites as its reason concerns about bringing the new juror up to speed on deliberations, but may actually be more motivated by concerns that Alternate #1 may be pro-prosecution and by a desire to maximize the chances of going to 10 jurors (a much shakier proposition under the law than going to 11).
The prosecution doesn’t want to go to 11 for the same reasons the defense wants to do so. Instead, the Department of Justice’s Nicholas Marsh urges the judge to replace Juror # 4 with Juror # 11. That last label was how Alternate Juror # 1 was known while she sat with 15 other jurors during a month-long trial before she was one of four identified as alternates and put on standby status as the remaining 12 went into the jury room to deliberate.
The judge accepts the prosecution’s argument, and agrees with Marsh that the jury is not much disadvantaged by being forced to start deliberations over because the jury has only deliberated for at most 12 hours so far.
Judge Sullivan announces that he is dismissing Juror #4 as a matter of law, and says he will bring in Alternate # 1 tomorrow at 9 a.m. to seat her as a deliberating juror, subject only to brief questioning to make sure that she hasn’t been tainted over the weekend.
The hearing had some differences from others and a major similarity. There were more than a dozen media representatives in the courtroom, including C-SPAN Founder and CEO Brian Lamb. For most in the courtroom on this Sunday evening, informality ruled the day. One normally dapper network news producer even wore jeans and a T-shirt.
Marsh wore a dress shirt with no jacket or tie, while the defense attorneys were in full business suits. There were only three lawyers present for Sen. Stevens, however, as opposed to the nine in the courtroom on the after-hours hearing on Thursday. What was striking was to see the ordinarily stone-faced Sen. Stevens smile and laugh with his lawyers before the hearing started.
The decision to bring in a replacement should logically set back deliberations by a day and a half, but logic does not always control. Tomorrow, I will make a prediction on the trial's outcome before I finish my report on the closing arguments.
Friday, October 24, 2008
Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 23
When the case went to the jury on October 22, trial watchers tossed out guesses about when there would be a verdict. The consensus seemed to be that while much earlier verdicts were possible, the latest the jury would come back would be Thursday, October 30--eight calendar days after deliberations began.
Since the jury got the case, however, various difficulties have caused delays and threatened additional delays next week. Your humble blogger wonders if this trial will end before Election Day, November 4.
On that note, here is a public service announcement for all Alaskans who are not in the state and do not know for sure that they will return before Election Day. The Division of Elections advises that tomorrow is the deadline for receiving applications for an absentee ballot. If I were you, I'd print that application off the Internet at http://www.elections.alaska.gov/abs_by_fax.php right now, fill it out, and then FAX it to the Division's Absentee Voting Office at (907) 677-9943. The form is only one page long, and you'll feel much better once you've sent it in. (Thanks to Theresa Philbrick for her vigorous reminder on this matter.)
Administrative note: Pressing personal matters will mean no more blog posts until tomorrow. In the meantime, you can still send in responses on the closing arguments quiz contest until 8 p.m. Eastern time tonight.
The trial is shut down for the day after a hearing this morning to discuss the missing juror (# 4), and it’s not clear when jury deliberations will resume.
Why the Missing Juror Left
Judge Emmet Sullivan told the assembled lawyers that he had spoken twice with that juror, with both telephone conversations apparently happening last night following the after-hours hearing.
The juror has told the same story both times, once to the judge alone and once in a follow-up conversation which also included one attorney from each side.
Juror # 4’s father has died, and she was scheduled to leave early this morning to attend funeral services in California. (The judge noted that last night he had incorrectly stated that Texas was the juror’s destination.)
Picking Among the Options
Based on these facts, the judge and the lawyers discuss what course to take. The judge identifies three options:
1. Recess the trial today (and perhaps Monday), while checking in with the missing juror on a Sunday afternoon telephone call to see if the juror would be ready and able to come back and allow deliberations to resume Monday (or Tuesday at the latest).
2. Replace Juror # 4 with Alternate # 1 (who was Juror # 11 on the original 16-member panel before being put on alternate--stand-by--status when the judge cut the jury down to 12 before deliberations started on Wednesday).
3. Dismissing Juror #4 and going with 11 jurors.
The defense wants to go with Plan # 1 (punt and wait and see), and the judge is clearly leaning toward it. The prosecution prefers Plan # 2 (bring in new juror). Judge Sullivan notes that both sides agree that Plan # 3 (cut the jury down to 11) is acceptable.
Judge Sullivan discusses the pros and cons of each option. The judge is bothered by the built-in inefficiency of bringing in a new juror because of the need to start deliberations all over again.
The judge also expresses concern about going down to 11 jurors because if another juror is lost, there would be “major problems.” Referring to yesterday’s request by 11 jurors that the court remove Juror # 9 for unacceptable behavior in the jury room, Judge Sullivan notes delicately that the history of the deliberations in this case suggests the potential of losing two jurors.
The talk of “major problems” in losing two of the original 12 jurors is that it creates the possibility of going to a 10-member jury if for some reason the judge couldn't find enough available untainted alternates to keep the jury at least 11-strong. The law offers strong support for an 11-member jury--with or without the consent of both sides--but puts a jury of 10 or fewer on substantially shakier ground.
Implementing the Choice
The judge decides that Plan # 1 is the best option, and announces that there will be a telephone call to the missing juror on Sunday at 5 p.m. to assess her ability and attitude regarding her jury service. That phone call will have the judge and one lawyer from each side calling that juror on her cell phone, and will be followed by a hearing at 6 p.m. Sunday to put on the record what was learned. The judge suggests strongly that deliberations might resume Monday or Tuesday, but if Juror #9 can’t get back until Wednesday—or if there’s any uncertainty about her return as of the Sunday phone call—then the judge will replace the missing juror with Alternate # 1.
Judge Sullivan then calls in the other 11 jurors to tell them that they get a day off. He also tells them to give court staff telephone numbers where they can be reached on Sunday evening. The judge notes the absence of Juror # 4, and tells the other jurors not to try to contact her.
The judge then calls in Alternate # 1, a white woman who works in information technology, appears to be under 35, and took a lot of notes during the trial. He asks her a number of questions to make sure that she had remained untainted during her time on standby status, and satisfies himself that she would be acceptable. The judge tells Alternate # 1 that she needs to be ready to take a phone call on Sunday evening telling her whether to show up for deliberations on the jury.
The Various Views of the Jurors, the Public, and the Lawyers on the Twists and Turns
The Anchorage Daily News noted in its reporting that while the jurors have always appeared to welcome any time off, for the first time this morning they look unhappy with the judge telling them to knock it off without doing any deliberations at all today. As one observer put it, how would you feel if you made a lot of effort to get to work in the morning and your boss immediately told you to turn around and go home?
Jurors might also feel dissed as well as jacked around. The judge’s failure to disclose the sudden family emergency of Juror # 4 as the reason for the forced delay might make the other jurors speculate as to the reason for her absence, or even wonder if somehow the conflict inside the jury room had led the judge or the lawyers to give them a bad job evaluation that required a suspension. Good working conditions are particularly important if you’re not paid well—if not reimbursed by their employer for jury service, each juror on this trial gets $40 a day.
The public and the lawyers involved have wildly different perspectives on the twists and turns in jury deliberations. The public will probably be very interested in the jury issues. In a trial that has featured matters as boring as timekeeping records and plumbing bills and as exotic as blue-eyed huskies and a Pakistan pipeline, the last three days have been about anger and death, subjects everybody can relate to. As one observer suggested, the issues involving jury deliberations have the same kind of human interest appeal you might see in People magazine or on daytime television.
The attorneys in this trial, however, have a much more strategic view of who sits on the jury. For them, this is like a game of go or chess as played on a small boat in stormy waters: You’ve got to watch your opponent’s moves and plan yours out ahead as far as possible, but you’ve also got to deal with the pieces slipping due to forces beyond the control of you or the other player.
The defense team, for example, seems to have more than one reason for liking the idea of going to 11 jurors instead of adding an alternate. It appears that the defense doesn’t want the judge to seat Alternate # 1 out of fears that she would be pro-prosecution. In addition, the turbulent history of deliberations so far suggests that going to 11 jurors maximizes the chances of going to 10, which would create a much better point on appeal if Sen. Stevens were to be convicted.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
More jury problems are unveiled, this time at an after-hours hearing. The judge advises that another juror—NOT the one who the other 11 jurors asked to be removed today—has told court staff that she needs to leave to deal with a relative who is ill or has passed away. The relative is apparently in Texas.
The judge recesses the hearing to try to call the juror, but he can’t reach her and returns to the courtroom.
Judge Emmet Sullivan announces that he will bring in Alternate Juror # 1 tomorrow at 9 a.m. to be questioned about her suitability to come in as a replacement. He orders the attorneys for both sides to provide briefing no later than 7 a.m. tomorrow—less than 12 hours away—on (a) what questions Alternate # 1 should be asked and (b) the legal issues of proceeding with an 11-member jury.
The defense wants to discuss aspects of these issues at the bench without having the audience hear. With the confidence of a man who has covered many trials in this courthouse and is about to leave the trial beat to work on investigations, Associated Press reporter Matt Apuzzo gets up in the audience and objects to the secrecy. The judge mentions that there are privacy concerns, and lets Apuzzo expound on the need for openness. The 29-year-old Apuzzo functions as the dean of the press corps covering this trial, and any list of up-and-comers showing themselves at these proceedings would have to include him as well as Beth Stewart, the stylishly effective attorney for Sen. Stevens who graduated from law school only three years ago.
Despite the rumor that the jury would be let off tomorrow as essentially a cooling-off period, the judge will bring the jurors in tomorrow. What is less clear is who will be on the panel. The juror whose civility has been questioned by her fellows (Juror # 9) may have patched it up with fellow jurors and continue her service, but it’s entirely possible that Juror # 4 (the one who appears to have the family issue) may not be able to continue deliberating. Speculation after the hearing was that the Stevens defense team would like to have the trial proceed with only 11 jurors as opposed to adding Alternate #1 to replace Juror # 4.
Also notable at the after-hours hearing was the imbalance in legal resources, at least for the night. The prosecution was represented only by Joe Bottini in a high-quality casual shirt and slacks, while at one point Sen. Stevens was represented by nine attorneys in business suits—six at the defense table and three on the bench. Eight of them stayed throughout the hearing, including the period when the judge went to make the telephone call to the juror headed to Texas. That figure of $175,000 a week I gave as my rock-bottom estimate of the cost of the defense? Take that up to $200,000 per week, easy.
Administrative note: While not covering on this blog or on the radio the procedural fencing over the jury panel, your blogger continues to labor on the reports on closing arguments. Please remain calm and civil.
Alaska Public Radio Network's Duncan Moon interviewed me, and I understand that some portion of that interview will likely be aired on the "Alaska News Nightly" program tonight. I believe the program starts at 6 p.m. in Anchorage on KSKA at 91.1 on your radio dial, and you can check your local listings for stations and times in other radio markets. Or you can listen anytime at www.aprn.org on the Internet.
The interview was about the legal and tactical issues involved in removing jurors after deliberations start. To see why that issue is even more timely than ever, read the next post.
So say the judge and reporters who sat in court for the most recent appearance. At that most recent appearance, this blogger watched closed-circuit TV in the media room, where none of the four parts of the split screen show the jury box.
The judge reads the third note relating to a particular juror. Signed by the foreman, the note begins “We the jury request that Juror # 9 be removed from the jury.” The note says that she is “being rude, disrespectful, and unreasonable” and that “She has had violent outbursts with other jurors and that’s not helping anyone.” The note says that she is not following the laws and rules set out in the instructions.
Judge Sullivan is clearly most bothered about the “violent outbursts” part, and asks the lawyers for thoughts on what he should do. There is discussion of alternatives ranging from bringing in the foreman to ask him what he meant by the “violent outbursts “ reference to bringing in Juror # 9 to bringing in the whole panel for additional admonishment on the need to be civil.
The judge goes off to tell the jury to stop deliberating while he ponders what to do.
The judge returns and indicates his intent to call in the jury as a whole. He does so, and gives them a pep talk about getting along and working together as “judges of the facts” before sending them back to the jury room to resume deliberations.
There are three jury notes announced by the judge around noon on Thursday. The first is basic and remedied without dispute—the jury has noted that Page 20 of the indictment is missing, and the judge will send in that page.
The second is a question about the definition of liabilities that have to be reported on the Senate disclosure forms. The judge offers suggested language that the prosecution likes, but the defense requests and gets more time to come up with a different version.
It’s the third note, though, that begets the buzz. The judge didn’t read it aloud, but allowed the lawyers to read it up at the bench. Chief prosecutor Brenda Morris talks in court about a “counseling session” with the judge and the possibility of bringing back an alternate to deliberate with the jury, so the note presumably deals with the question of some juror continuing on the jury.
Update: As I type, court personnel announce in the media room that the judge will put the note on the record in 15 minutes what the third note says.
While your blogger keeps working to finish the posts on the closing arguments, let’s dip back into real time for a minute.
The judge yesterday sent four alternates away and left the case in the hands of 12 people to decide Ted Stevens’ fate. Those 12 include seven black women, three black men, a white woman, and a man who appears to most observers to be Hispanic. The foreman as selected by the jury is a black man who works as a drug rehabilitation counselor. In a more subjective sense, the jury appears to be mostly middle-class and--with some exceptions--tending towards middle age.
We're sitting here in the late morning of the first full day of deliberation, and nobody outside the jury room has any way to know what's going on.
The jury created a brief flurry yesterday afternoon—its first afternoon of deliberation—when it sent the judge a note that media reports have said read "Can we leave a little early today? It's kind of stressful right now. We need a minute of clarity."
Judge Emmet Sullivan—who has shown a humane sensitivity to the jurors throughout this trial—complied with the request.
Initial speculation about this note centered on the possibility of conflict among factions on the jury, and later speculation focused on the possibility that the split is between those who want to convict immediately and those who want to go through the evidence piece-by-piece and deliberate on each of the seven counts.
After talking with numerous people who have watched and not watched this trial, my own take is a little different. Consider the human factors at work. For a month, the jurors have been told what to do, where to go, and what not to talk about. Now—suddenly—they’re in charge, and they may be a little freaked out by the task.
Think of a hunting party of newbies deep in the woods when the guide keels over of a heart attack. The jurors have got to figure out who to trust, who should take the lead in various areas, and how to organize themselves to keep going.
This jury went through an an intense day of closing arguments on Tuesday before they walked in Wednesday morning and got hit with 81 pages of jury instructions and what’s got to look like a mountain of exhibits. It may be only natural that they want to rest and reflect a bit before proceeding.
Probably the best insight is that yesterday’s note means that deliberations maybe just got
extended for a day beyond what they otherwise would have gone.
Then again, this all comes from a guy who predicted that Ted Stevens would never testify.
Administrative note: Given your blogger’s mix-up on the date announced in the original deadline for the quiz contest, the deadline for responses is extended to Friday, October 24, 2008 at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
[Administrative note: Closing arguments provided so much material that the report on them will appear in several posts.]
The courtroom is packed for the expected drama of closing arguments today. Waiting for the court session to begin, federal prosecutors Brenda Morris and Joe Bottini share a laugh while going over notes. Powerhouse lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan sits at the end of the defense table, staring off into the middle distance as he seems to be gathering himself for his last chance to strike a blow for his client’s freedom.
Senator Stevens sits with his daughter Beth in the front row, and for a second consecutive day he looks particularly strained. He gets up and walks to the defense table in his special orthopedic sneakers.
The drama of the first criminal trial of a sitting U.S. Senator in more than 25 years is framed by the fancy trappings in this impressive hall of justice. There are more than a dozen TV screens to allowing the simultaneous viewing of exhibits by the judge, the lawyers, the witness, the jurors, and the spectators. Wood paneling both shiny and stately covers every wall in this high-ceilinged theatre of a courtroom.
There is a single special bench right behind the prosecution table, and another special bench right behind the defense table. Each bench is full of the paid partisans for its side. The prosecutors who focus more on writing than talking in court join Department of Justice administrative personnel and FBI or IRS agents in seats on the prosecution bench, while the defense bench features Williams & Connolly associate attorneys and perhaps some paralegals. It’s like watching the back-ups cheering on their teammates on the field—although court decorum of course makes that cheering silent.
There is definitely a different look on the two benches, however. The federal agents have shorter haircuts and resemble people you who might see shopping at a suburban hardware store, while the defense bench looks more like Singles Night at the country club.
Sitting in the second row in the regular spectator area is National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg, whose wardrobe is as dramatic as her voice is authoritative. Today’s highlight is an orangish-red jacket.
The courtroom has four courtroom artists, who sit in the corner in the front to get the best view of the counsel table, bench, and witness stand. One working on a sketch pad sits next to her black bag, which carries several dozen pens.
Also in court is Los Angeles Times reporter Chuck Neubauer, who is attending the trial for the first time. He was one of the authors of articles published in 2003 raising ethical questions about the business dealings of Ted Stevens and his son Ben. A report in the Washington Post has speculated that those stories triggered the federal investigation that produced this trial.
Neubauer introduces himself to a man sitting in the front row, Anchorage Daily News reporter Rich Mauer, an investigative journalist who has broken major stories on the Alaska public corruption scandals. Standing together in court, the two veteran shoeleather reporters look like old-style diggers who pore over documents as opposed to the new breed of journalists used to being made up for TV appearances.
This trial has brought together in one room the three institutions that have done the most to expose the Last Frontier’s corruption scandals: the Los Angeles Times, the Anchorage Daily News, and the Department of Justice. The feds’ big budgets and wiretap and subpoena powers obviously give them numerous advantages over the media in ferreting out official wrongdoing.
Cutbacks at various newspapers around the country have unfortunately threatened investigative journalism at those publications, as that type of journalism is expensive and unlikely to produce the quick dividends sought by many short-sighted businesspeople. It’s worth wondering, for example, whether the financial pressures now besetting the Los Angeles Times would prevent Neubauer and his colleagues from doing the months of probing that they did only five years ago to produce those original stories on Sen. Stevens and Ben Stevens.
Judge Emmet Sullivan comes in, and he is in his usual charming mode. There are none of the perhaps excessive outbursts of anger that he occasionally directed outside the presence of the jury at prosecutors or their star witness Bill Allen during this trial that has already run a month. Judge Sullivan brings in the jury, and the closing arguments start.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I have seen closing arguments at perhaps 50 jury trials, and these were the strongest I have observed.
I want to ruminate on the content, the high-tech graphics, and the theatrics, and I will write a full report tomorrow. If I’m feeling bold, I will hazard some predictions.
In the meantime, here’s a quiz in three sections. Based on the knowledge you’ve gained from reading this blog, please identify which side asked which question during closing arguments today:
1. Is it fair to be a Monday morning quarterback evaluating what someone did six, seven, or eight years ago? PROSECUTION _____ DEFENSE _____
2. Who would you rather trust, Colin Powell or Bill Allen? PROSECUTION _____ DEFENSE ______
3. Can a man live honorably all his life until age 84 and then be branded a criminal? PROSECUTION ___ DEFENSE ___
4. Isn't the price always right if it’s free? PROSECUTION ____ DEFENSE ____
5. If Catherine Stevens controls the teepee in the Stevens household, why is the furniture that Bill Allen provided to the Girdwood chalet in 2001 that she has always hated still there seven years after it first arrived? PROSECUTION ____ DEFENSE _____
6. How long do you have to keep an item that was loaned to you before it morphs into a gift—would it be three months, a year, or longer? PROSECUTION _____ DEFENSE ______
7. Did Santa Claus and his elves come down from the North Pole to leave the wraparound deck, the gas grille, the rope lighting, and the big black ugly furniture at Ted Stevens’ chalet in Girdwood? PROSECUTION _____ DEFENSE _____
8. Could you sleep at night if you made a major decision based on the word of Bill Allen? PROSECUTION ___ DEFENSE ___
Which side made which of the following statements during closing arguments today?
A. We are so afraid of convicting an innocent man in this country that we have the amazing rule that no one can be convicted unless each member of the jury agrees unanimously on each element of a charged crime. PROSECUTION ____ DEFENSE ____
B. The standard that the prosecution must meet of proving that a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt cannot mean beyond all doubt, because that would be impossible. PROSECUTION _____ DEFENSE ______
Which side wishes tonight that it had asked which of the following questions during closing argument?
i. If a friend of yours stole your furniture and replaced it with furniture you hated, would you keep going on vacation each year with them? PROSECUTION _____ DEFENSE ______
ii. Why didn’t Rocky Williams testify at this trial? PROSECUTION ____ DEFENSE ______
The reader e-mailing me at the address at firstname.lastname@example.org with the most correct answers gets an appropriate prize. Deadline is Thursday, October 24, 2008 at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
Monday, October 20, 2008
In addition to what this blog has already predicted regarding the closings, two points stand out as probable for the defense in the final argument tomorrow:
1. Where’s Rocky?
Lead defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan is sure to point out that much of the prosecution’s case rests on the work Rocky Williams provided in the remodeling of the Stevens chalet—work that Williams did on the VECO payroll that the Stevenses never paid for.
But due to either his illness or a questionable decision by the prosecution, Williams never testified at the trial. Sullivan will cite that non-testimony as a failure of the prosecution’s proof. The jury can only convict Stevens if it finds him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and Stevens’ lawyer will argue that the government’s failure to produce Williams creates reasonable doubt all by itself.
2. Nullify this Mouse
Sullivan will have to be careful with this argument, but the wily attorney will probably find some way to suggest that in bringing these charges of non-disclosure that the government has spent too much money chasing too small a case. If the prosecution could prove bribery or the acceptance of illegal gratuities, Sullivan could hint, the prosecution should have done so. Instead, Sullivan may suggest, the government has brought a Mickey Mouse case which amounts at worst to mistaken paperwork over such things as the value of a dog. Sullivan would want the jury to think that these allegations should be in front of the Senate Ethics Committee, not a jury in a criminal trial. For Stevens’ attorney, it would be great if the jury decided that no matter what the law says, the jury should nullify the law by refusing to convict based on what he would portray as at most paperwork screw-ups by a very busy and dedicated public servant.
Ted Stevens finished his testimony today, and both the defense and the government have rested their cases.
Today was less fiery than last Friday’s beginning of the cross-examination, but it was probably more damaging to Stevens.
Chief prosecutor Brenda Morris today mostly focused on using precise questions to get Stevens to admit unfavorable facts as opposed to trying to get him to adopt unflattering characterizations of his behavior.
The Furniture Bill Allen Deposited in Stevens’ Girdwood Home
She started this morning with the single most specific and human vignette in the trial: The moment in 2001 when Stevens and his wife Catherine came to their Girdwood home and discovered that their furniture is gone and replaced with furniture that Bill Allen has brought in.
Morris gets Stevens to repeat what he and his wife have already said before in the trial—they were unhappy because the furniture the long-time VECO chief has brought in is ugly, old, inappropriate for the chalet, and in at least one case has cigarette holes.
The prosecutor then pointed out that Stevens not only kept the furniture in his home, four years after it arrived he even discussed the possibility of giving it to his son and daughter-in-law.
“You are actually trying to re-gift the furniture that is so hideous to your son. Is that correct?”
Stevens denied that what he considering was re-gifting, because he did not see the furniture as a gift in the first place and never owned it. He acknowledged that the furniture that Allen deposited in his home in 2001 is still there.
The prosecutor pounced later when Stevens volunteered that “Bill Allen stole our furniture and put his in the chalet.” Morris responded by asking the Senator why he didn’t call the police.
“It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time,” Stevens said. “I might now.”
In its closing argument tomorrow, the prosecution will surely point out that the Senator went with Allen on their vacation-style Boot Camps for years even after the oil-services tycoon committed this alleged theft.
The Big Generator Bill Allen Bought for Stevens’ Chalet
The prosecution put Stevens in another difficult place by making him walk through the story of how Allen arranged the installation at the chalet of a big back-up generator that Stevens never paid for.
In 1999, Stevens e-mailed his friend Bob Penney and told him “I asked Bill Allen to hook up a generator to our chalet for Y2K—JUST IN CASE!” Allen had a big generator with a transfer switch put in at the house that is there today.
Stevens testified on cross-examination that this was another example of Bill Allen going overboard. The Senator said that he had asked Bill Allen to arrange for the rental of a small generator just to handle any potential problem the Y2K threat could cause for the New Year, but Allen had instead bought a big one. Stevens said that he had asked Allen to remove it, and that one problem Stevens had in making this request was that the Senator was in Girdwood so little he didn’t see for a substantial period that it was still there.
The Role of Allen and VECO in the Chalet’s Renovation
The questions about Allen and VECO that hurt Stevens the most this morning, however, came when Morris walked the Senator through a series of e-mails that Stevens’ friend Bob Persons sent the Senator in 2000 during the renovations of Stevens’ chalet. Stevens had designated Persons as his “eyes and ears” on the ground in Girdwood while the Senator labored back in Washington, D.C. An essential element of Stevens’ defense is that the Senator and his wife understood that two VECO employees—Rocky Williams and Dave Anderson—who worked extensively on the renovation and billed VECO for their time were instead working for a construction company run by Augie Paone, whose bills the Stevenses paid when the invoices arrived.
The problem is that more than a half-dozen e-mailed progress reports Persons sent Stevens in the summer and fall of 2000 describe the work of Williams, Anderson, and Allen in often glowing terms, but do not mention Paone or his company. Stevens was forced to acknowledge that Williams often worked for VECO, but insisted that he appeared to work for Paone’s company while working on Stevens’ remodeling job.
The prosecutor scored again by getting Stevens to admit that he had stated in a 1997 letter that he had thought about raising the chalet to add a story to the home, but “I just have not had the cash to do that.” Morris got Stevens to concede that he had begun the raising project—and then went on to even more extensive renovations—after he discussed with Bill Allen and Bob Persons in 1999 his desires to expand his home and his two friends volunteered their help.
Morris suggested that Allen’s association with Stevens seemed to make Stevens feel able to renovate his home. Given that the announcement of the federal investigation into Stevens’ home renovation in 2006 caused Allen to leave Stevens’ circle of friends, Morris suggested similarly that Allen’s break with Stevens led the Senator to stop taking care of the Girdwood home since he no longer had his rich friend’s assistance.
The Status of the Massage Chair in Stevens’ Home in Washington, D.C.
Questioning on the $2,700 Brookstone massage chair Persons put in Stevens’ home in Washington, D.C. in 2001 also gained ground for the government. Stevens said that while his friend Persons intended the chair as a gift, the Senator would not accept it as a gift. Instead, Stevens considers the chair as a loan—even though the chair is still in his home seven years later.
Morris asked Stevens if he had other furniture in this home owned by other people.
“We have lots of furniture in our house that doesn’t belong to us,” the Senator replied.
The Emotions in the Courtroom
Jurors, particularly the younger members of the panel, showed a number of smiles today during this morning’s cross-examination. It appeared that Friday they enjoyed the combat between the feisty Senator and the peppery prosecutor; today it seemed more that the jurors were savoring what they evidently perceived as the unintentional humor in some of Stevens’ statements.
Morris was better in exercising control of Stevens today, and that control created a mood and momentum in the courtroom that went beyond the actual content of the words spoken.
Much more subdued than on Friday, Stevens was obviously heeding his counsel’s advice to keep it cool on the stand—but only to a point. Bristling at a line of questions he considered unfair, Stevens told Morris “You go right ahead with your questions, miss.” The Senator couldn’t resist fighting off Morris in some instances, so much that the judge had to admonish the witness: “Why don’t you just answer her question, sir?....Respond to her question, sir.”
Despite these comments, Stevens was substantially less contentious today than on Friday. That less aggressive demeanor has to reflect in part his lawyer’s advice, but also it may stem from the enormous strain and fatigue he must feel. The Senator sits strong on the stand, but he walks slowly and hears poorly. Stevens was rubbing his eyes this morning before taking the stand. (He’s not the only one who is tired: After working all weekend on jury instructions, federal prosecutor Nicholas Marsh—about 50 years Stevens’ junior—sits at the government’s table with his eyes closed in the moments before the jury comes in.)
When Stevens starts to testify this morning, he keeps making the errors of a man close to the end of his capacity: He keeps referring to Y2K as “YK2” and describes a $150 check in front of him as being made out for “a dollar and fifty cents.”
Evaluation of the Prosecution’s Performance Today: Good But Not Great
Morris seemed to miss some opportunities when she failed to tie Allen even more tightly to Stevens by making the Senator list the number of days he had spent with the oil-services magnate each year at “Boot Camp.”
Similarly, the prosecution could have emphasized Stevens’ chances to learn about how much work Allen and VECO had done on the chalet if Morris had asked Stevens to state how many days each year he had been at his Girdwood home between 1999 and 2006.
It is probably fairer, however, to judge the prosecution not against an ideal but instead based on what’s needed to advance the government’s case. By that standard, the United States of America advanced the ball today.
Tomorrow, the prosecution and the defense will make their closing arguments. Each side will spend about three hours trying to persuade the jury.
Next Up: Last Chance: More on the Defense's Likely Closing Argument
Sunday, October 19, 2008
But if you must have the latest right away, check the wire services. This blog's built for insight, not for speed.
P.S. On a personal note, congratulations to my cousins Luanne and Zach for their Rays' terrific victory over my Red Sox. All the best to the Rays in the World Series, and I only wish my Uncle Dick could be here to see it.
Chief prosecutor Brenda Morris has told the judge that she expects to spend perhaps another hour cross-examining Ted Stevens on Monday morning. Depending on what comes up in the remainder of the cross-examination, lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan may have some questions for his client on redirect examination.
Following Stevens’ testimony, it appears that the trial will proceed to closing arguments on Monday. As the side carrying the burden of proof, the procedure is for the prosecution to go first. After the defense makes its argument, the prosecution gets the last word to rebut the defense’s closing.
What will the two sides do at the end of the trial?
In the remainder of the cross-examination, the prosecution will aim for the same goal it will seek in closing: Hammer on the evidence most damaging to Stevens. Some of that evidence has already come into the record from chief prosecution witness Bill Allen's testimony, taped conversations between Allen and Stevens, and the cross-examinations of Stevens' wife Catherine and Stevens' friend Bob Persons.
The government can do more during the cross-examination of Ted Stevens, however, to pound home evidence favorable to the prosecution. The best evidence for the government that could be elicited on cross-examination of Stevens would come from making him set out:
- The substantial improvements made to Stevens’ Girdwood home and the additional repairs made there;
- Stevens’ extensive opportunities to learn about those improvements and repairs between 1999 and 2006; and
- Stevens’ frequent contacts with Bill Allen during and after the making of those improvements and repairs, particularly their annual vacation-style “Boot Camps” and other face-to-face meetings together.
Year / Improvements and Repairs Added / Days Stevens Spent in Girdwood / Days Stevens Spent with Allen
Although the courtroom is filled with state-of-the-art video technology, the best way to make this graphic would be the old-school method of using a marker pen on a simple pad mounted on an easel in front of the jury.
This graphic would be a timeline that could help summarize a flood of testimony and exhibits for the jury. Making Stevens help fill out that graphic by giving answers to a series of short, precise questions would be like preparing a punchlist.
On closing argument, the prosecution could supplement that simple timeline/punchlist by adding one photograph of each improvement to illustrate the graphic. As one observer pointed out, the before and after photographs of the home could constitute some of the most damning evidence against Stevens.
The defense’s task is in some ways more psychological than presentational. The prosecution has got a mountain of facts, but the defense wants to get the jury to focus on feelings. Lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan will likely try to get his client to calm down and stay in control during the remainder of cross-examination. The Senator and his lawyer will continue to do everything they can to get the jury to zero in on Allen’s concealment of his role in providing valuable things to Stevens instead of on the opportunities Stevens had to learn what Allen had done.
Stevens and his attorney need to show somehow that the Senator felt sorry for his brain-injured friend Allen and let his sympathy cloud his judgment in dealing with the VECO chief. It’s a tough task, but that’s why Ted Stevens retained Brendan Sullivan and the top-flight Williams & Connolly firm.
The defense closing can probably be summarized by the acronym "BIBTOB." That is, Brendan Sullivan will likely argue or imply that Ted Stevens was:
Betrayed by his former friend Allen and by his own inattentive wife Catherine
Isolated by his long distance from Girdwood most of the year
Busy from all his duties in the Senate
Too honest to conceal anything knowingly, as his character witnesses testified
Old and distracted
Beneficient in allowing Allen and others to use the Girdwood chalet
Brendan Sullivan will likely rely on several matters revealed during the trial to bolster these themes. As summarized by Brent Kendall in an article in the Wall Street Journal, those points helpful to the defense include the apparently excessive and unnecessary costs incurred in VECO's work renovating the chalet, the confusion Allen showed in his testimony, and Allen's potential motives to shade his testimony to help the prosecution. Sullivan will also argue that the prosecution can't be trusted, citing the judge's instruction regarding evidence excluded from the case due to the prosecution's failure to meet its obligations to give certain evidence to the defense. Sullivan may even ask the jury to discount Allen's testimony given that the judge angrily announced in open court that someone was sending signals from the audience while Allen testified.
If you want to see the closings, knowledgeable court personnel recommend getting in line by at least 8:30 a.m. outside the courthouse.
It was a different playing field for the dedicated athlete.
Ted Stevens testified all day Friday, and being on the witness stand had to be very strange for the veteran lawmaker.
The Senator has spent the last 40 years calling powerful people on the carpet, often while he wielded the gavel at the head of the committee table. Before he entered Congress, he spent years grilling witnesses as a federal prosecutor and trial lawyer in private practice in Alaska.
So it must have been strange indeed for him to be the one answering the questions in his only opportunity to speak directly to the jury that will decide his fate.
The lifelong demon exerciser had a good base of fitness to handle the more than five hours on the stand as apparently the last witness in his criminal trial. But it was an excruciating experience for the 84-year-old in ways that went way beyond the physical.
Sen. Stevens’ Goals in His Testimony
He had to thread the needle between detailing the awesome responsibilities of his Senate seat and showing all the power he held as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Commerce Committees. Having the jury ponder his heavy responsibilities is good for him (because being extremely busy suggests that he was unable to monitor closely all the details of his home renovation project), while having the jury contemplate his clout is bad for him (because a powerhouse should be able to stop a friendly businessman from showering him with valuable items the Senator didn’t want).
Stevens had to claim strong and proactive maintenance of ethical standards that spurred a frequent demands for bills for his home remodeling in 2000-2001 and later repairs, while simultaneously asserting detachment from the reality of receiving and paying those bills.
He had to distinguish sharply between the “lion of the Senate” his own colleague described in court from the man who apparently couldn’t get a key to his house away from a friend who kept leaving unwanted stuff in that house and even “creeping” out Stevens’ own daughter when she visited the home.
He had to explain the Last Frontier’s business mores to a jury of East Coast urbanites, telling them that it was not “the Alaska way” to get contracts, bonds, or multiple references before getting your house renovated.
Most of all, the famously testy Stevens had to keep his temper when the friendly questioning from his lawyer gave way to an aggressive cross-examination by the chief prosecutor.
I’m Busy, and My Wife Runs the Teepee
Guided by his masterful lead attorney Brendan Sullivan, Stevens made several specific points in his defense.
The four-decade lawmaker talked about the heavy workload imposed by his job: the constant contact with constituents, the committee meetings, the frequent international travel.
Stevens explained that while he ran matters outside the household, inside the walls of their homes his wife Catherine’s word was law and her hands controlled the checkbook. (Chuckles ensued when the Senator said that he would live differently—with things not always getting off the floor—if he lived alone.)
In practice, this division of responsibilities combined with Stevens’ role as a Senator to explain how he might simultaneously request to be billed for things he got and still be ignorant about whether those bills had been paid.
Stevens vociferously announced his strict code of ethics for transactions, like the meals with friends and lobbyists: “I don’t let people buy my lunch or buy my dinner.”
It was more difficult, however, if bills were sent to his Senate office, where either his wife or—as shown in his wife’s testimony, his Senate staff—would be in charge of paying them. After asking for the bills, Stevens would frequently be unaware if they had ever arrived so they could be paid.
And Bill Allen presented a particular problem: The CEO of VECO—the Alaska-based multinational oil-services firm—kept providing things for Stevens’ house that Stevens now claims he didn’t want without sending Stevens bills for them.
Ted Stevens’ Close Friend for Years Is Now Revealed to Him as a Crook and a Liar
The veteran lawmaker’s view of Bill Allen during the trial is clear: The man now unveiled as a crooked businessman has lied under oath about his old friend the Senator.
Stevens emphatically denied that he ever told his friend and designated home caretaker Bob Persons anything that would have led Persons to tell Allen that Stevens’ request for a bill was “just Ted covering his ass,” as Allen testified.
Stevens also denied Allen’s report of a conversation in which the Senator allegedly told the tycoon that he recognized that VECO was doing a lot more work on Stevens’ home renovation than the company was billing for.
And Stevens was particularly vehement in denying Allen’s testimony that Stevens told him in March of 2006 that Stevens needed to get invoices from Allen to protect both Allen and the Senator from the scrutiny that had befallen Anchorage real estate developer Jon Rubini after his business dealings with Stevens went under a microscope. “An absolute lie” was Stevens’ description of Allen’s account of that conversation at the two men’s annual “Boot Camp” retreat in the desert.
What was murkier, however, was the nature of Stevens’ relationship with Allen before the FBI announced its presence in their lives.
Stevens struggled to explain how the Harvard Law School graduate and Senate titan had become so close to the high school dropout and oil-services tycoon that Allen would feel free to put a number of big-ticket items—including a steel staircase, a professional gas grille, a wraparound deck on the ground floor, extensive rope lighting, a number of pieces of furniture—into the Senator’s home without telling him or charging him.
Stevens offered three explanations in his testimony: He and Allen had become such close friends that Stevens trusted Allen; Allen and Stevens shared the Girdwood home Stevens owned, with Allen using it more than Stevens did; and Allen’s brain injury in the summer of 2001 made him difficult to deal with. It was only years after the completion of the remodeling and other repairs, Stevens said, that he recognized the extent of Allen’s contributions to the project: “Now we realize there’s a lot more intersection with Bill Allen on this than we ever knew before.”
The prosecution will contend in closing arguments, however, that the documentary evidence of the Senator’s thank you notes and e-mails to Allen show gratitude, not complaints, from Stevens about what he knew that Allen had done at the chalet.
The Senator’s testimony suggested a different world on the Last Frontier, where a handshake and a reputation for honor are more important in getting work done than business formalities. You don’t ask for somebody’s rate or get a fixed price before you get something done: You ask to do something, they do it, you pay their bill, and you never use them again if they don’t treat you right.
Similarly, an easygoing lifestyle prevailed at the Girdwood chalet, so it was no surprise that Allen had a key—Stevens pointed out that at one point there were probably 22 keys out to that small-town home. It is on this point where Stevens is again disadvantaged by facing a jury in Washington, D.C. rather than in Anchorage, where the Senator’s invocation of “the Alaska way” would have more resonance.
The dog that hasn’t barked so far, however, is testimony by Stevens to explain why he and Allen kept going on the annual just-the-two-of-them guys’ trips after Allen sustained his brain injury and Allen kept forcing big-ticket items on Stevens against the Senator’s will. The jury has heard substantial testimony from Allen about those annual Boot Camps in California or Arizona where the two men retreated for dieting, walks in the desert, and enjoyment of wine, and Stevens has acknowledged that those vacations occurred. There would seem to have been plenty of time face-to-face, the prosecution will surely argue on closing, for Stevens to straighten Allen out on bills and behavior at the chalet.
Throughout the direct examination, Brendan Sullivan keeps control of his client, a man used to being in control. Showing his skill as one of the country’s best lawyers, Sullivan’s questions are clear and forceful, and he issues orders to Stevens on the stand in a way that less experienced or
less assured counsel might be afraid to.
Cross-Examination Puts Two Short Strivers in the Ring
Ted Stevens is very smart, and he has forgotten more than most people in the courtroom will ever know. At this point in his life, however, he is poorly suited to serve as a witness at his own criminal trial, and his cross-examination by chief federal prosecutor Brenda Morris shows why.
The problem is that Ted Stevens is not used to dealing with people who do not love him, owe him, or fear him. Brenda Morris is not a junior Congressional staff aide dazzled by his stature. She is not a mayor of a small Alaska town grateful for federal funding for a capital project. And she is not a freshman Congressman desperate to save a threatened Air Force base back in his swing district.
Ted Stevens’ popularity in Alaska is based on respect for his analytical ability, hard work, and dedication to fighting for his constituents. He has never in his life been the kind of smooth gladhander so many politicians are, and it is no accident that he lost two races for the U.S. Senate before getting into that body through appointment. Ted Stevens has never pretended to be some kind of genial Mr. Rogers; on the Senate floor he frequently wears ties showing the Incredible Hulk and the Tasmanian Devil.
The fireworks blazed in the cross-examination in part because the questioner and the questioned share some similarities. Ted Stevens and Brenda Morris are both short people who have parlayed sharp intelligence and fierce drive into impressive careers.
Ted Stevens grew up poor and in difficult emotional circumstances to become Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the longest-serving Republican Senator ever, and the man Alaska’s biggest airport is named after. Brenda Morris is a black woman who became Principal Deputy Chief of the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. Neither of these powerful personalities got where they are by backing down.
Stevens is full of anger and even contempt towards the federal prosecutor, as those who have watched him in the Capitol could predict. He is not shy about raising his voice in the Senate, where he has announced that he is “a mean, miserable S.O.B.” Stevens has signaled that his frequent flashes of feeling are for effect: He has told Alaskans that he has a trial lawyer’s temper—he uses it, but he doesn’t lose it.
Stevens was known to be a good trial lawyer as a vice-fighting federal prosecutor himself in territorial Fairbanks and as a private attorney in Anchorage in the 1960s, but he clearly struggles to keep control as Morris fires questions at him.
Stevens fights back repeatedly, and can’t resist criticizing the questions he is supposed to be answering.
“I think you better rephrase your question. That question is tautological….Is that a question? I thought it was a statement….You’re making a lot of assumptions that aren’t warranted….I’m not going to get into a numbers game—you tell me what year you’re asking about….You’re not listening to me. I answered it twice.”
When Morris asked if VECO served as the general contractor for the remodeling of his home, Stevens said “They were not. You know that.”
Asked whether the notes and e-mails he sent asking for bills from Allen were really just “covering your bottom,” the Senator shot back “My bottom wasn’t bare.”
The cross-examination late Friday afternoon did not follow the usual script from a trial advocacy handbook. Morris did not exercise complete control over Stevens and force him to make a number of damaging admissions. But the dramatic sparring might still hurt Stevens if the jury decides that Stevens’ feistiness and righteous attitude actually reflects the kind of arrogance that would lead a man to think that his record of service and achievement entitles him to gifts and freebies from rich friends. Once again, the demographics of the jury that came with holding the trial in Washington, D.C. might hurt Stevens, as a jury that is mostly composed of black women might resent the disdain the Senator displays towards Morris, an African-American female.
(To get more coverage of Stevens' testimony, you will gain additional insights--as I did--from Martin Kady II’s article “Stevens faces challenges to win case” in Politico and Tom Ramstack’s piece “Stevens: Cabin done ‘the Alaska way’” in the Washington Times.)
This Is a Sad Spectacle
Friday’s court session was almost unrelievedly grim and hostile, and the difficulty of the day matched the stony face Stevens has maintained virtually throughout a trial already four weeks long.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for him. Facing his 85th birthday next month, Stevens has done a lot in a life whose end he repeatedly referenced on the witness stand. U.S. Attorney in territorial days, Interior Department Solicitor, state legislator, and U.S. Senator for four decades, Ted Stevens helped bring statehood, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), major fishing legislation, and billions of dollars in capital projects and operating expenditures to the state.
As the Almanac of American Politics said, “No other senator fills so central a place in his state’s public and economic life as Ted Stevens of Alaska; quite possibly no other senator ever has.”
Even Stevens’ worst enemies would acknowledge his intelligence, hard work, determination, and pride.
His contributions and longevity have been recognized and rewarded repeatedly in Alaska and the Senate. He needed to be appointed to get into the Senate, but once in he came to enjoy great success at the polls. Stevens was re-elected once by winning every precinct in the state.
Until this year—when he garnered a tough challenge from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich—“Uncle Ted” was in recent years seen as so impregnable that he scared away any kind of stiff competition. One commentator observed that the Democratic nominees in the two previous election cycles suffered from mental illness. In 2002, Stevens essentially kept his fellow Alaska Senator in office, as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was behind late in the campaign until Stevens announced in a blizzard of commercials that he needed to have her in Washington with him as his partner in fighting for Alaska.
A civic group named Stevens “Alaskan of the Century” in 2000, and his state's newspapers refer to federal funding in Alaska as “Stevens money” without attaching those quotation marks.
Stevens rose to become one of a handful of the most powerful people in Congress, and as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee perhaps the most powerful over the purse. He served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, third in line for the Presidency.
After all that success and all that power, however, Stevens has seen much of his life turn to ashes in the two years since the FBI launched its raids on August 31, 2006 and made the long-running federal investigation into Alaska public corruption public.
He has been indicted on multiple felony counts and now endures a month-long trial. His attorneys are running up legal bills that have got to be well over $1 million by now. His old friend Bill Allen has testified against him.
Stevens is reportedly under federal criminal investigation for matters separate from those in this trial. Allen and another VECO executive have pleaded guilty to bribing his son Ben, the former President of the Alaska State Senate who has not been charged with wrongdoing but has publicly acknowledged being under investigation by several federal agencies.
Stevens has had his wife and his oldest daughter come in and testify as witnesses for him, and he narrowly escaped having his youngest daughter do the same before the prosecution's errors led to the elimination from the case of the charges involving that daughter.
And unless the judge somehow stops the trial, Stevens’ fate will be in the hands of jurors whose lives are very different from his.
Next up: Speculation on the Remaining Cross-Examination and the Closing Arguments
Friday, October 17, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Nobody could imagine this day would ever come.
Ted Stevens, Alaska legend and Senate icon, took the witness stand today in his own defense in a criminal trial that threatens his legacy and his political life.
A wave of emotion washed over those witnessed this historic event at the end of a long day of speculation about whether the 40-year Senator and “Alaskan of the Century” would actually tell his story under oath.
Before we got to Ted Stevens taking the stand at the end of the day, two other witnesses provided testimony critical to the trial and to Sen. Stevens’ hopes of holding onto his seat. And it is with those two star witnesses—Bob Persons and Catherine Stevens—that we start.
The Caretaker is a Net Minus for the Defense
The momentous day starts with federal prosecutor Nicholas Marsh continuing his cross-examination of Girdwood restaurant owner Bob Persons, who kept an eye on the chalet’s renovations at the request of his friend the Senator.
The government lawyer’s technique improved overnight. He kept good control of the witness and showed an eye for the telling detail.
Marsh got Persons to admit that after the investigation started and Persons was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, Persons called contractor Augie Paone on a pay telephone to talk to him about the Stevens home renovation project. The prosecution will surely hammer on this suspicious act to say that it screams consciousness of impropriety—if not guilt—on Persons’ part.
Although Persons testified that he had reminded VECO CEO Bill Allen of all the times that the Senator had told Allen to bill Stevens for any work VECO had done on the chalet, Marsh got Persons to admit that he had never received any invoice from Allen.
Marsh also employed a mocking tone effectively in a reference to Persons’ testimony yesterday that Allen was “crazy” to say that Persons had told him to ignore any of Stevens’ requests for invoices because “ ‘Ted’s just covering his ass.’ ”
The prosecutor said “You weren’t trying to cover anybody’s butt here sir, were you?”
When Persons answered “No,” Marsh asked innocently “That would be a crazy thing to suggest?”
The prosecutor also zeroes in on the massage chair that Persons provided to Stevens. Persons and VECO CEO Bill Allen saw a model of the chair at a mall at Washington’s Union Station while the pair were in the nation’s capital for President Bush’s inauguration in 2001. Persons bought the chair online at a cost of approximately $2,700 and shipped it to the Senator’s home in Washington, and initially told investigators that he intended to make it a gift to Stevens.
Marsh gets Persons to concede that a recent review of e-mails shown to him by his lawyer had helped Persons remember that Stevens had told him that the Senator considered the chair to be a loan.
Asked by Marsh what terms he negotiated on the loan of the chair, which still sits in Stevens’ Washington home seven years after its arrival, Persons responds that he should have gotten the chair back, but it was difficult because the chair was in Washington and Persons lived in Alaska.
On redirect examination, Persons exploded. Asked about his initial interview by the FBI when his house was searched in 2006, Persons denounced one of the agents who questioned him.
“That was the most hateful human being I ever met in my life,” Persons said. “That guy made me understand why there’s a lot of innocent people in prison….It was like being mentally waterboarded.”
The outburst—which seemed contrived to some—reminded me of the old saying that a conservative is a guy who has just received his tax bill and a liberal is someone who just had a family member indicted.
The Prosecution Tries to Portray Catherine Stevens as Implausibly Misinformed, Curiously Incurious, and Pampered by Federal Assistance
Catherine Stevens gave testimony on direct examination that was broadly consistent with themes frequently sounded by the defense. She was responsible within the household for the home renovation project, as her husband Ted was too busy and she was between jobs. She paid the bills for the remodeling as they came in, and believed that she had paid all those bills.
To buttress these claims, Catherine Stevens stated that she had thought Bill Allen had arranged for Augie Paone to be the general contractor for the remodeling job. Stevens testified that she thought VECO employees Rocky Williams and Dave Anderson worked for Paone—not VECO—so she assumed the bills from Paone would have included the charges for their labor. Defense attorney Rob Cary walked her through those bills and the corresponding checks paying them one-by-one. The process was so tedious that it sometimes seemed that the defense was trying to bore the jury into an acquittal.
Catherine Stevens has an impressive background that long predates her marriage in 1980 to Ted Stevens following the death of his first wife. Catherine Stevens served as a federal prosecutor in Southern California before moving to Fairbanks, where she served as District Attorney. More recently, she has worked as General Counsel for the National Endowment of the Arts and Occidental Petroleum.
Stevens testified that she didn’t like a number of the improvements that the chalet received that previous testimony has established came from VECO. The witness said the steel staircase was dangerous and ugly. The professional Viking gas grille was a fire hazard, she said, that she didn’t want on her deck. The furniture that Bill Allen provided was “totally inappropriate for the chalet.” Not only was a big black couch not to her taste, but it even had cigarette holes in it.
Sen. Stevens’ wife also talked about evidence she observed that someone else was using the chalet a substantial amount when the Stevenses weren’t there. Catherine Stevens found needles at her home. She associated them with Allen, whom she believes is a diabetic.
Catherine Stevens’ demeanor on the stand seemed to some spectators to be relaxed—even laid-back—for the wife of a U.S. Senator on trial for his political life and legacy. A vigorous cross-examination shook her up, however. One observer described the style of Brenda Morris as “conversational incredulous,” and the prosecutor asked tough questions at an appealing tone and pace.
Morris pressed Stevens on her claim that she didn’t know Williams worked for VECO, noting that the Senator’s wife had spent time shopping for construction supplies with him. Similarly, the prosecutor underscored that Stevens’ claim of ignorance about Williams’ employer was odd in that she had sent him a bonus for his work, and had used VECO’s address to get it to him. (The bonus was two airline tickets anywhere Delta flies, plus a $2,000 check.) Stevens also sent door knobs for the chalet from Washington to Williams at VECO.
If Stevens disliked all the furniture she found at the chalet that she knew Allen had provided, why didn’t she make him take it away or arrange to take it to the dump? Pointing out that Catherine Stevens—a partner in a large Washington law firm—makes close to $500,000 per year, Morris suggested that the Senator’s wife could afford to get the furniture moved.
Stevens responded that she felt constrained because Allen had removed her furniture when he provided the furniture she didn’t like. The witness also added that “Once he hit his head in 2001, it was almost impossible to have a conversation with him.” (The prosecution will surely point out in closing arguments that Ted Stevens continued to take annual “Boot Camp” vacations with Allen for years after the VECO CEO’s motorcycle accident left him with a brain injury.)
Morris was particularly sharp in exploring why the Stevenses hadn’t paid for a wraparound deck installed on the home’s ground floor in 2002, after the initial renovations had been completed. Stevens testified that she had once checked with her husband’s Senate staff to see if a bill for the deck construction had arrived, and then forgot to pursue the matter.
That reference to the role of Stevens’ Senate staff in paying his family’s personal bills was part of a larger line of questioning about just how much assistance federal employees managed the Senator’s household’s finances. Morris got Stevens to admit that the Senator’s staff had paid some of her credit card bills (apparently including accounts at Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus) and some utility bills. That same Senate aide sometimes managed her checkbook and completed insurance renewals. Asked if the Senate staff mowed the lawn at the Senator’s home, Stevens said that if that occurred she was sure that the family paid for it. (An article by Martin Kady II of The Politico noted that a database showed that the Senate aide paying the bills made $126,000 in 2007.)
The questions about whether Catherine Stevens used a Senate staff member as “a human ATM machine” who sent cash home with the Senator in his briefcase is not directly relevant to the charges of concealment of gifts and loans at issue in the case, but fit into a broader theme likely to be advanced by the prosecution. That theme is that both Sen. Stevens and his wife lived in such rarefied air that they would come to expect people to give them things for free.
On redirect examination, the defense suggested that Stevens could have been led to believe that Williams worked for Paone instead of VECO because Williams signed a number of the bills that Stevens got from Paone’s company. In addition, the defense suggested that the clever theory that the involvement of Senate staff in managing the Stevens family’s household finances might flow from an attempt to comply with Senate ethics rules making it critical to track the family’s income.
A Giant Starts Out Strong
With the jury outside the courtroom, the judge made one more try to make sure that this highly unusual criminal defendant knew that people in his situation had an absolute right not to testify. The former prosecutor turned U.S. Senator looked at Judge Emmet Sullivan and said “It’s a privilege and a duty.”
Stevens took the stand with the jury in the box. Under questioning by lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, Stevens began his testimony with a ringing denial of the charges.
"Senator, when you signed those forms, did you believe they were accurate and truthful?"
"Did you ever intentionally file false disclosure forms?"
"No, I did not."
"Did you ever engage in any scheme to conceal anything from the Senate?"
Brendan Sullivan then guided Stevens through the story of the first five decades of his life, and it’s an impressive story. Following a hardscrabble Depression-era childhood, Stevens made determined efforts to get into the military in World War II. A pilot for the Army Air Force, Stevens’ service in China flying missions behind enemy lines earned him several medals.
Stevens worked as a lifeguard to finance his college education and used his G.I. Bill benefits to become a lawyer. He served as a lawyer in Alaska and in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer for the federal government. He played an important role in achieving statehood for the Last Frontier.
In the early 1960s, Stevens opened up a law practice in Anchorage and lived there with his first wife Ann and their five children. After serving as a state legislator, Stevens was appointed to the U.S. Senate, and now has been elected seven times.
Sen. Stevens then told the jury about an airplane crash in 1978 that killed his wife Ann and four others while leaving Sen. Stevens as one of only two survivors. He testified about how his daughters set him up on a blind date with Catherine and how they married in 1980.
That ended Stevens’ 25 minutes of testimony today, which is but a small fragment of the many hours he will spend on the stand.