Monday, October 20, 2008

It's a Sad Song, and the Music Hurts More than the Lyrics

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 19

Washington, D.C.--

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

No comments: