Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Eat this Bill and Don't Be Crazy

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 16—Part Two

Washington, D.C.—

A conflicted contractor and a folksy caretaker share the spotlight today.

The Builder Is on the Spot

Augie Paone was a man in a bind, both in his dealings with Bill Allen and on the witness stand today. The long-time Alaska contractor testified that Ted and Catherine Stevens paid the first five of the bills he submitted for his company’s work on the Stevens home in Girdwood, but that his sixth and final bill of about $13,000 was going unpaid.

Paone complained to Bill Allen, then the CEO of a now-defunct global oil services company who had hired Paone in 2000 to work on the project.

Paone said that Allen told him that “Maybe I should eat the bill or look at it as a political contribution.”

The small businessman said that he considered going directly to Sen. Stevens to present his bill, but decided such a course would be “business suicide” given that VECO had 5,000 employees and Paone’s company had only five.

Paone made it clear to Allen, though, that he thought he should not have to take the loss on the unpaid bill on the Stevens chalet. The building contractor testified that Allen ultimately covered that missing $13,393 by paying an inflated bill for work Paone’s company did at Allen’s home.

Both VECO and Paone’s company did work remodeling Stevens’ home, and the bulk of the government’s case charges Stevens with getting VECO’s portion of that work for free and then failing to disclose that free work as gifts or loans on disclosure forms Stevens was required to submit as a Senator.

The defense’s opening statement built up Paone as an honest man up against a dishonest Bill Allen bent on concealing from his close friend Ted Stevens his donation of benefits to the Senator. Paone’s testimony contradicted Allen, who told the jury that he had never told Paone to eat the bill—but Allen and Paone agree that Allen ultimately paid the invoice in question by letting Paone pad a bill for work done at the VECO chief’s home.

The prosecution’s cross-examination showed the small businessman to be a clearly conflicted witness. Paone thought that the work done by VECO employees was low-quality and provided inefficiently, but he also thought that the way the Senator was getting at least some of that VECO work for free was not right.

Prosecutor Joe Bottini got Paone to admit that VECO employees were “running the show” on the home renovation. He also got the building contractor stick to his own previously expressed estimate that VECO had put about $100,000 in improvements to the Senator’s home. Those things provided by VECO, Paone said, included labor and materials for a steel staircase, a steel balcony, and a fire escape as well as electrical work.

Even after the initial remodeling job was completed, Paone testified that he went back to the house to do various tasks that either VECO or Allen personally paid for. The building contractor acknowledged under cross-examination that this additional work was extensive and obvious, implying that Stevens should have known that it needed to be paid for.

Finally, Paone referred to prescient fears he had harbored about this historic trial while he had labored on the job. He said that at the time of the remodeling work “I was concerned that the Senator wasn’t getting billed for some of that stuff and I was concerned that something like this would happen.”

By the time Paone had left the stand, the prosecution had turned the tables.

The Sportswoman Scores for the Senator

This trial’s witnesses sometimes seem to fall into three groups: those you’d really want to have dinner with, those you probably wouldn’t want to work on your house, and those whose bed you definitely wouldn’t want to get into right after they got out.

Donna de Varona is clearly in the first category. This Olympic champion swimmer and veteran TV sportscaster is particularly winning when talking about her work to increase the opportunities in sports for women and girls. She worked with Ted Stevens to get Congress to help the American Olympics movement, and his influential efforts are evident in the legislation called the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. She greatly admires and respects the Senator, and extols his reputation for consistency, loyalty, and courage.

De Varona didn’t bite on the prosecution’s questions on cross-examination about whether Ted Stevens’ son Ben got excessive compensation for his work on Special Olympics, saying that she didn’t know what those arrangements were. (Although the jury will not hear this, Ben Stevens was paid $715,000 for three years of part-time work as chief executive of the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games held in Anchorage, and then received $57,000 in consulting fees from the national Special Olympics.)

Then on redirect, the defense made a move that would have drawn congratulations from my father, a veteran trial lawyer, who gave me advice on the way to prepare your character witnesses for cross-examination. He told me that you needed to get those witnesses so fired up in your preparation of them that when they were asked about various bad things alleged about the person they were testifying in favor of they responded “I don’t care. I know this man, and what I know is that he is great.”

Defense attorney Alex Romain played it just this way, asking de Varona whether—even assuming all of the things that the prosecutor suggested were true—she would still have a high opinion of Ted Stevens. The Olympic star came through like a champ again for the Senator, declaring that she would still hold her excellent view of him.

The Other Martha Stewart Lets the Prosecution Play the Class Card

Martha Stewart also testified on Wednesday morning, but the defense attorney presenting her told the jury “Don’t get excited.” The Martha Stewart who walked into the courtroom is the director of federal relations for the University of Alaska, not the tycoon/investor who went to prison for covering up an alleged insider-trading scandal.

This Martha Stewart was on the stand to rebut any suggestions by the prosecution that Ted Stevens really intended a gift of a bronze salmon sculpture allegedly worth about $30,000 to be for his own enjoyment at his Girdwood home, as opposed to putting it in a Ted Stevens Memorial Library that had not been built yet. Stewart testified that there had been discussions for years about constructing that memorial library, perhaps in Anchorage, to house Stevens’ massive collection of papers from his four-decade Senate career.

Any help the Stevens defense got from Stewart, however, was considerably blunted by the prosecution’s cross-examination. Government attorney Nicholas Marsh got Stewart to say that she had attended a Stevens Foundation fundraiser in Washington, D.C. where each ticket cost $5,000 (although in her role as a planner of the proposed facility she didn’t have to pay it).

The prosecutor also asked if the going rate at the fundraiser was $50,000 a table, but Stewart didn’t know about that. The testimony about how much it cost to go to a high-end charity fundraiser gave off a whiff of the rich insiders vs. ordinary folks theme that has simmered throughout the trial.

Straw in the Wind, Head Fake, or Keeping Open All Options?

While trying this morning to get the judge to admit some evidence, the defense told the court this morning that Ted Stevens will testify—a statement that is the most reliable--albeit not certain--signal yet that the defendant will take the stand.

More tantalizingly, Ted Stevens got on the witness stand during the lunch break to do a sound check on the microphones. He and defense attorney Rob Cary also checked out the Senator’s ability to see from the stand.

Walking Bob Starts a Long Stroll through Explanation Alley

Bob Persons lives in the ski resort hamlet of Girdwood, where he owns and operates the Double Musky Inn, Alaska’s best Cajun restaurant. Nicknamed “Walking Bob,” the Alabama-born businessman also served as the designated caretaker of his friend Ted Stevens’ house in Girdwood.

Persons addressed two problems for the defense under direct examination from Stevens’ attorney Rob Cary. The witness stoutly denied Allen’s allegation that Persons had told the VECO chief “‘Bill, don’t worry about getting a bill. Ted’s just covering his ass.’” Persons called Allen’s attribution of that statement to him as “crazy.”

The restaurant owner also played down his taped comment that Catherine Stevens had said that her husband Ted got “‘hysterical when he has to spend his own money,’” saying that it was just a joke.

Prosecutor Nicholas Marsh mounted a dogged and intensively prepared cross-examination that made several points helpful to the government.

Marsh demonstrated several instances in which Persons’ trial testimony differed substantially from his previous statements to the FBI or the grand jury and from what other evidence showed. As cross-examination continued, the folksiness Persons displayed in his direct testimony seemed to degenerate into a disturbing pattern of forgetfulness. Jarringly, Persons laughed when the prosecutor pointed out that the witness had previously cited a family history of Alzheimer’s disease to explain his unusually poor memory.

What might damage the defendant the most in this afternoon’s cross-examination, however, was the revelation that Stevens had met with Persons in May of 2007 just before the restaurant owner was set to appear before a grand jury and discussed several issues that Persons testified on in that appearance. Persons admitted that Stevens had told him in that meeting that Allen had given Stevens a generator and that Persons had shortly thereafter told the grand jury that he didn’t know if Stevens had paid Allen for it. Persons testified today that despite that substantial conversation, he and Stevens had never discussed the question of whether Stevens had paid Allen for the generator.

Next up: Tomorrow will see Bob Persons complete his testimony. Last to appear for the defense will be Catherine Stevens and—maybe—Ted Stevens. Closing arguments will occur Monday or perhaps Tuesday. This trial will finish on a combative note.

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