Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Campaign Rally Mingles with the Parade of Doubt

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 14

Washington, D.C.—

The man with the golden resume gave the golden endorsement.

Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified Friday on behalf of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Also appearing as witnesses were three construction contractors, three specialists in home valuation, two labor leaders, an Alaska Native leader, an enthusiast for salmon fishing, an activist for improved Russian-American relations, a former Congressional constituent assistant, and a doctor who saw the defendant use the power of the federal government to save a baby.

It was like watching a TV special called “This Is Your Life, Ted Stevens” as produced by his high-flying legal team at Williams & Connolly instead of Hollywood.

The identity of the show’s producer makes a big difference, because a political consultant making the program would only have used about half of those witnesses.

Those testifying can be divided into two groups: the people who could have plausibly fit on the stage at a campaign rally for Sen. Stevens’ re-election, and those who would only be called to challenge allegations made against him by the prosecution in this criminal trial.

The people praising Stevens’ fine qualities in general offered the following propositions:

1. Ted Stevens tells the truth and keeps his word. (Powell.)

2. Ted Stevens helps Alaskans from all walks of life, including those Alaskans who most observers would consider particularly deserving. (Julie Kitka, President of Alaska Federation of Natives; Louise Johnson, former constituent case worker for Sen. Stevens.)

3. Ted Stevens’ help to individual Alaskans can be extraordinarily powerful as well as the difference between life and death. (Dr. Dani Bowman, Anchorage pediatrician.)

America’s Most Admired Man Vouches for America’s Most Powerful Criminal Defendant

The emotional highlight of the day comes from Powell. In an era of hype, spin, and feet of clay, this man comes across as the real thing.

Every American glancing at the news over the past two decades knows his story: Born in Harlem in modest circumstances, he rises to become National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.

But what you don’t get in media reports or short snippets on TV or radio is how damned impressive he is when you listen to him talk at any length. The mere recitation of his resume brought even jaded observers almost to cheers.

Powell defines the word “deft”: After retiring from the military’s top job, he said that he pursued some business and charitable interests before returning to federal service where he “dabbled a bit in diplomacy.”

Powell exudes competence and credibility. He also looked great, in another example that life was unfair: Powell is actually one day older than disgraced VECO chief Bill Allen.

The career soldier and statesman delivered the goods as a character witness for Ted Stevens.

Based on his quarter-century of experience with the Alaska Senator, Powell said that Stevens was a “trusted individual” with a “sterling” reputation. “He was someone whose word you could rely on.”

Powell described Stevens “as a guy who would tell me when I was off base” and added that “he would tell me when I had no clothes on—figuratively, that is—and would tell me when I was right and go for it.”

And this man with such a widely admired record of service to the United States made sure to tell this jury of Washingtonians that Ted Stevens was no parochial lawmaker concerned only about his Alaska constituents.

“He fights for his state. He fights for his people,” Powell said. “But at the same time, he has the best interest of the country at heart – always."

In the best sound bite from a master sound-biter, Powell said that "He's a guy who, as we said in the infantry, we would take on a long patrol."

By all reports, the jury loved Colin Powell. Political analysts have speculated that Powell is so beloved by Americans that he would easily be elected President if he could somehow be air-dropped onto a general election ballot without having to go through the grinding march of the primaries. And you got the impression that if the judge would just suggest it, the jurors would hoist the man he called “General Powell” up on their shoulders, carry him out of the courthouse, and take him straight up Pennsylvania Avenue to install him in the White House immediately.

Watching him testify, you could easily see why the speakers’ bureau offering his services describes him as “The most respected man in American today” and “A man of supreme intelligence, versatility and presence….” You could also see how Powell can reportedly command speaking fees of $100,000 per appearance plus first-class expenses for himself and his wife, who would normally travel on a Lear 60 jet.

Powell is so shiny to Americans of all races that it seems almost quibbling to point out that Stevens’ defense attorneys from Williams & Connolly were not unaware that as an African-American Powell would have particular appeal to the majority black jury. As noted by John Bresnahan in The Politico, the proposed witness list filed by Stevens’ lawyers was heavy on minorities, including four blacks lined up to testify as character witnesses.

Given Powell’s extensive record of working with Stevens, however, the defense’s calling of the former Secretary of State is very different from the approach of the founder of Williams & Connolly, Edward Bennett Williams, in his successful 1957 defense of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. That famous trial lawyer legendarily pulled a fast one by having African-American boxer Joe Louis shake the hand of his client in front of the majority black jury.

When lead defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan finished questioning fellow D.C. insider Colin Powell, prosecutors showed that they had learned their lesson from the trap they walked into with Sen. Daniel Inouye, D.-Hawaii, Ted Stevens’ previous character witness. That lesson is that trying to cross-examine an experienced Washington politician about the basis for his opinion is about as bad an idea as crossing the ocean to start a land war in Asia.

The cross-examination was consequently limited to asking him if he had been to Stevens’ Girdwood home or had any personal knowledge of the case. Powell’s negative answers to both questions got the defense’s most glittering witness off the stand without doing any more damage to the prosecution’s case.

The Importance of a Reputation for Honor in the Legislative Process

These ruminations on tactics used by the defense and prosecution in handling Colin Powell should not distract us from a central truth. The witness expressed something about this trial’s defendant that is well-known to those who have followed his Senate career: Ted Stevens is a man of his word.

If Ted Stevens says he vote a certain way or take some other action in the legislative context, it’s widely understood that Ted Stevens will do it.

Stevens’ rise to the pinnacles of power didn’t just happen. His iconic status in Alaska and in Congress is not just because he was lucky enough to get appointed to the Senate at the relatively young age of 45. It’s not just because Alaska’s increasing shift to Republicanism in the 1970s and 1980s helped him get re-elected so many times in an institution that rewards seniority. It’s not just because he is intelligent or hard-working or tough to the point of being—in his own words—“a mean, miserable S.O.B.”

No, Stevens has become so powerful in part because he has shown other Members of Congress that he won’t welsh on his commitments. This attribute is particularly important in Congress, which operates in an organizational sense as a collection of 535 small businesses. Because no Member of Congress has a boss on Capitol Hill and none of them can be fired by anybody in Washington, it is your reputation for keeping your word that allows you to be trusted—and thus remain effective—in the future.

That quality of honoring commitments is in many minds similar to this trial’s central question: Did Ted Stevens knowingly and intentionally conceal his receipt of freebies on Senate ethics forms? That similarity means that the defense will likely present more evidence regarding the Senator’s keeping his word and hammer on it in closing arguments.

The Lovefest Breaks Out for “the Alaskan of the Century”

Julie Kitka, President of the Alaska Federation of Natives, told the jury that AFN was something like the NAACP (previously called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She testified that Stevens had worked hard to help Alaska Natives, a group historically burdened by poverty.

Louise Johnson, a former constituent case worker in Sen. Stevens’ office, told about how she labored under the Senator’s supervision to solve the problems Alaskans had with the federal government.

And Anchorage pediatrician Dr. Dani Bowman told the jury how Ted Stevens had saved the life of one of her patients. In testimony so emotional that it seemed to go over the top, Dr. Bowman said that Sen. Stevens had arranged on short notice for the Air Force to transport from Anchorage to the Lower 48 a baby that would have otherwise have died due to medical care unavailable in Alaska. The successful effort took 2o about federal employees, Bowman said.

The testimony from Bowman, Kitka, and Johnson illustrated how much better off Ted Stevens would be if this case was being tried in Alaska instead of Washington, D.C. The defense would not need to work hard to show the Senator’s good deeds at a trial in Anchorage, as it’s difficult to throw a rock in any populated place in the Last Frontier and not hit somebody who is personally aware of Ted Stevens going to bat on behalf of some Alaskan.

And it’s not just the federal money he has brought home, either. The Alaska journalist Michael Carey is right to say that the billions in appropriations he has delivered to a sparsely populated state have made Stevens “something of a frontier fertility god—worshiped, propitiated, feared.” It’s also true that Alaskans know Stevens as a fierce fighter for Alaskans aggrieved by some federal action or omission, whether big or small.

On to the Legal Defense: Sowing Doubt

The rest of the day was devoted to demonstrating the following propositions:

1. Ted Stevens and his wife Catherine paid the bills they got regarding their home in Girdwood. (Contractors Jean Raymond and Toney Hannah.)

2. Given the valuations of the home before and after it was remodeled, Ted Stevens was justified in thinking that either VECO didn’t do much work renovating the house or that any work it did didn’t add much value. (Shan Forshee and Don McGee, employees of the Municipality of Anchorage’s Assessing Department; appraiser Gary Randall.)

3. Ted Stevens was justified in thinking that VECO didn’t do much work on the renovations, because other companies did substantial work on those renovations. (Contractors Robert Redmond and Toney Hannah.)

4. Ted Stevens helped competitors to VECO. (Julie Kitka and Russian-American relations specialist Russell Howell.)

5. Ted Stevens didn’t do everything desired either by VECO or by Big Oil, the major oil companies that for decades were VECO’s primary clients (Labor leaders Jim Sampson and Mano Frey.)

6. The value of the dog Sen. Stevens got as a gift was not as high as the prosecution has alleged. (Ron Rainey, former chairman of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.)

The cross-examinations of the federal prosecutors were generally brief and effective Friday, particularly those of Department of Justice Trial Attorney Nicholas Marsh.

The prosecutor got Anchorage Assessor McGee to acknowledge that there was only a weak relationship between the actual cost of a home remodeling and the increase in the assessed value produced by that remodeling. Marsh also got Rainey, the board member of the sportsfishing group, to say that he had been directed by longtime Stevens friend Bob Penney to “create a paper trail” to show that the husky in question was worth one-quarter what Penney had paid for it at a charity auction.

As for the evidence the defense elicited about Stevens’ record of paying all the bills he got, the prosecution will likely press the point that the government’s case is not about Stevens not paying his bills. As Jill Burke noted on the KTUU-TV website, the Department of Justice contends that a lot more work occurred at Stevens’ house than he paid for. Prosecutors assert, Burke observed, that “whether or not bills were sent, Stevens knew he either had to pay for the work himself or to let the public know who was really picking up the tab.”

Next up: The glories of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse, the site of the trial.

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