Monday, October 6, 2008

The Feds Play the Tapes

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

Washington, D.C.—

It was the Bill and Ted Show caught on tape.

Bill Allen, former oil-services corporate titan and admitted briber of legislators, continued his direct testimony that had been interrupted by arguments late last week over discovery violations by the prosecution.

Questioned by federal prosecutor Joe Bottini, ex-VECO CEO Allen detailed more things of value that he had arranged for his company to provide to Sen. Stevens. The list was familiar to the jury, with the exception of a frame to hold a speed bag in the expanded home’s garage.

Bottini got Allen to talk about Stevens’ periodic requests that Allen bill him for the extensive remodeling work VECO had done on Stevens’ Girdwood home—requests that Allen never complied with.

The longest in-person discussion of the billing issue appears to have occurred in the spring of 2006 at what must have the last of the “boot camps” that the pair had taken for years in sunny climes. In about March of 2006, Stevens and Allen repaired to Wickenburg, Arizona to talk, walk, diet, and relax.

Allen said that Stevens told him that Anchorage real estate developer Jon Rubini had had to spend “two to three million dollars” in attorneys’ fees after his deals with Stevens had fallen under federal scrutiny. (As reported in the Los Angeles Times and the Anchorage Daily News, Stevens’ investment of $50,000 in a partnership with Rubini grew to about $1 million in six years, and Stevens worked successfully to get the Air Force to approve a separate project of Rubini’s.)

“I don’t want that to happen to you, so you better get me some invoices,” Allen said Stevens told him. This conversation was not taped, so Allen’s account may be the only one the jury hears.

(This $2-3 million figure for legal fees seems high given that Rubini has never even been charged with wrongdoing, much less faced trial. It seems wildly improbable that Rubini’s lawyer would confirm that number. This case does show, however, that top legal talent is pricy indeed.)

Then the prosecution played tapes of three telephone conversations between Ted Stevens and Bill Allen made in the late summer and fall of 2006. Each of these calls occurs after the FBI has confronted Allen and convinced him to cooperate with the investigation. So each call is “consensually monitored”: Allen knows the feds are listening in.

The first call occurs August 31, 2006. This is the day after a cooperating state legislator has delivered Allen into the hands of the feds. It is also the day after raids of the offices of six state legislators have brought the federal investigation into the public for the first time. The searches of those offices—including those of Ted Stevens’ son Ben Stevens, the powerful President of the Alaska State Senate—were the subject of saturation news coverage in Alaska.

When Allen tells Stevens that federal agents have been asking about the bills for the work VECO did on the Senator’s home, Stevens says that he had an “inkling” of the problem and says that he will speak to his wife about the matter.

Stevens calls Allen back 11 days later, and the tone is radically different. The 84-year-old Senator uses the salty language common among men who are old friends and says that he is getting as little as four hours of sleep a night while worrying about the federal investigation.
“I’ve never been up against a bunch like this one before.”

He says that “the chief targets” appear to be himself, his son Ben, Allen, and “Bob” (presumably either Stevens’ cohorts Penney or Persons). “Let’s stick this thing out together, OK?” is Stevens’ request to Allen.

It is the third conversation on October 18, 2006, that is the most problematic tape for Stevens.
In lines quoted in the prosecution’s opening statement, Stevens tries to reassure Allen. This passage will be much parsed:

You got to get a mental attitude that these guys can't really hurt us. You know, they're not going shoot us. It's not Iraq. What the hell? The worst that can be done, the worst that can happen to us is we round up a bunch of legal fees and, and might lose and we might have to pay a fine, might have to serve a little time in jail. I hope to Christ it never gets to that, but, and I don't think it will.

Stevens repeatedly expresses concern about Allen’s mental and physical health and tries to buck him up: “Smile and have a happy face….If you or I or both of us end up in court, the worst thing we can do is just sit there and looking glower and…make the jurors feel like they're part of a process that you hate.”

The Senator tells a long story about his Uncle Walter who made and lost a fortune and then had a happy life while toiling for $30-35 a week. The moral is “The attitude is what makes the difference.”

Stevens specifically warns against the two of them meeting in private, as that will look like obstruction of justice to prosecutors he considers overzealous. The Senator rails against those who are pursuing them, apparently the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section: “I think they’re partially political if not totally political.”

Stevens says over and over that he doesn’t believe that he and Allen have done anything illegal. In a statement that prosecutors will contend is related, Stevens also states “I think they're probably listening to this conversation right now, for Christ sake.”

Throughout, Stevens expresses a guarded but aggressive optimism: “These bastards are not going to stop us working for this state and doing what we think is right.” The Senator rallies his old fishing and drinking buddy: “Let’s get through this and get back to our boot camps again.”

The prosecution and defense will characterize this conversation very differently. The government will probably say that Stevens’ reference to potential jailtime for himself shows his consciousness of guilt seeping through even when he guesses that the call is being tapped. The defense will likely assert that Stevens is just trying to cheer up a friend who has been ill and depressed by showing him that even a hypothetical worst-case scenario is not that bad.

The tapes provide so much to chew over that we’ve got to move the day’s second highlight—the cross-examination of Bill Allen—to a later post. Stay tuned.

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