Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bill Allen Goes on the Griddle (Gently at First)

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 10, Part Two

Washington, D.C.—

The master trial lawyer gave a lesson in cross-examination.

Brendan Sullivan’s goals in questioning key prosecution witness Bill Allen were several. The veteran lead attorney for Sen. Ted Stevens wanted to get support for several defense themes, cast doubt on the prosecution’s factual allegations, and finally attack the long-time VECO CEO’s veracity on one critical point.

Sullivan started by getting Allen to agree with some flattering characterizations of the witness. Allen naturally had to concur that before the FBI announced itself in his life he was a hardworking and respected businessman who had built a greatly admired company from scratch. Allen also felt compelled to agree that he was a generous benefactor to many and a man who loved his family. Allen also ’fessed up that he loved Alaska and that he loved Ted Stevens, with whom he had a genuine friendship.

All these points bolstered the defense’s theory that Stevens was justified in spending so much time with Allen and trusting him to take a substantial role in overseeing the remodeling work at Stevens’ home. Stevens didn’t sleazily use Allen to get financial benefits, the defense is saying. Instead, it was just two guys hanging out who liked to fish and do other guy things together.
Through a series of focused leading questions, Sullivan extracted from Allen a series of points consistent with how the defense wants the jury to see the case.

Allen agreed that there were multiple reasons that Allen never billed Stevens for the work VECO did on Stevens’ Girdwood chalet. Allen thought that VECO’s work was done inefficiently, and even acknowledged that the company’s ramrods on the site were alcoholics. Allen thought that this inefficiency would make it hard for VECO to put together a proper bill. Allen thought that some of VECO’s work was done improperly, and VECO did some work for free as make-up work. Allen wanted to give Stevens gifts out of personal friendship, and Allen pushed on the Senator some things—a gas grille, extensive Christmas lighting, some furniture—that Stevens never wanted and perhaps in some cases didn’t even use.

Despite his conviction for bribing Alaska state legislators, Allen agreed that he had never tried to bribe Ted. Stevens.

Sullivan drew from Allen the admission that the burly business titan had concealed one subcontractor’s bill from Ted and Catherine Stevens. This testimony came with maximum effect in its timing, as Sullivan skillfully got Allen to say this just before the jury broke for lunch.

Sullivan then got Allen to put a benign spin on other favors he had done for Stevens or his family. The job VECO gave Stevens’ son Walter was one of a number of examples of Bill Allen helping those who were deserving because they worked hard. The job training that VECO gave Stevens’ 19-year-old grandson was just him and his company trying to help “a young boy” with a drug problem. (The legal problems faced by Ted Stevens’ son Ben, on the other hand, are being kept out of the trial. This includes the more than $200,000 VECO paid Ben in consulting fees over the years and the admissions by VECO that they bribed Ben.) Documents shown Allen suggest that the brand-new Land Rover that Allen sold to Stevens was worth less than the prosecution has contended, so maybe that deal wasn’t so sweet for Stevens after all.

Cheerful, sympathetic, knowing—Sullivan maintained a fine demeanor throughout the day’s questioning of Allen. He exemplied the oft-violated maxim that “Cross-examination does not have to be cross.”

Throughout these first stages of cross-examination, Sullivan showed how to control the witness. His questions were so tightly focused that he achieved what good cross-examination should: It seemed like it was the lawyer who was testifying.

Question: “And all this was good-hearted on your part—in the Christmas spirit—to do something fun?”

Answer: “Yes.”

After getting a lot of agreement from Allen, however, Sullivan turned tough while challenging a critical point made earlier by the witness. The lawyer zeroed in on Allen’s statement that another reason that he never billed Stevens for VECO’s work was that Stevens’ friend Bob Persons told him that the Senator didn’t want him to and that any assertions to the contrary were just Stevens “covering his ass.”

Sullivan tried several times to get Allen to disclose when he first told federal agents this account of Persons’ statement. Allen seemed never to understand the question, and kept insisting that he remembered well that Persons had told him that.

“‘Hell, don’t worry about those invoices. Ted’s just covering his ass.’ That’s exactly what he said.”

Whether frustrated with Allen’s recalcitrance on this point or executing his master plan, Sullivan ended the cross-examination for the day, with probably about one hour of cross left. The timing left the jury with Allen stubbornly sticking to his story on that testimony, and that probably wasn’t the image Sullivan wanted to leave in jurors’ minds as they left the courtroom.

After the jury left, the prosecution announced that it would probably be able to rest its case either Tuesday (October 7) or early Wednesday (October 8). The government has cut back on its case, and gave notice that it will not produce any testimony regarding a second Allen/Stevens vehicle transaction that when first disclosed looked particularly bad for the Senator.

The defense has linked this dropping of the evidence regarding the second car deal to allegations that the prosecution has concealed evidence, including evidence that would suggesting that Allen thought this second vehicle transaction was fair.

Judge Emmet Sullivan has indicated that he will hear arguments just before the prosecution rests on this latest battle over discovery violations the defense has alleged against the government.

This dispute has featured increasingly nasty accusations on both sides. The defense seeks dismissal or a mistrial based on the prosecution’s “intentional and repeated misconduct” in turning over exculpatory evidence. (Dismissal would throw out the case, while a mistrial would likely leave room for the trial to start up again.) The prosecution dismisses the defense’s contentions as speculation and conjecture as well as “theatrics and hyperbole.”

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