Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Legend Toughs It Out Under Another Lawyer's Lash

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 18

Washington, D.C.—

It was a different playing field for the dedicated athlete.

Ted Stevens testified all day Friday, and being on the witness stand had to be very strange for the veteran lawmaker.

The Senator has spent the last 40 years calling powerful people on the carpet, often while he wielded the gavel at the head of the committee table. Before he entered Congress, he spent years grilling witnesses as a federal prosecutor and trial lawyer in private practice in Alaska.

So it must have been strange indeed for him to be the one answering the questions in his only opportunity to speak directly to the jury that will decide his fate.

The lifelong demon exerciser had a good base of fitness to handle the more than five hours on the stand as apparently the last witness in his criminal trial. But it was an excruciating experience for the 84-year-old in ways that went way beyond the physical.

Sen. Stevens’ Goals in His Testimony

He had to thread the needle between detailing the awesome responsibilities of his Senate seat and showing all the power he held as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Commerce Committees. Having the jury ponder his heavy responsibilities is good for him (because being extremely busy suggests that he was unable to monitor closely all the details of his home renovation project), while having the jury contemplate his clout is bad for him (because a powerhouse should be able to stop a friendly businessman from showering him with valuable items the Senator didn’t want).

Stevens had to claim strong and proactive maintenance of ethical standards that spurred a frequent demands for bills for his home remodeling in 2000-2001 and later repairs, while simultaneously asserting detachment from the reality of receiving and paying those bills.

He had to distinguish sharply between the “lion of the Senate” his own colleague described in court from the man who apparently couldn’t get a key to his house away from a friend who kept leaving unwanted stuff in that house and even “creeping” out Stevens’ own daughter when she visited the home.

He had to explain the Last Frontier’s business mores to a jury of East Coast urbanites, telling them that it was not “the Alaska way” to get contracts, bonds, or multiple references before getting your house renovated.

Most of all, the famously testy Stevens had to keep his temper when the friendly questioning from his lawyer gave way to an aggressive cross-examination by the chief prosecutor.

I’m Busy, and My Wife Runs the Teepee

Guided by his masterful lead attorney Brendan Sullivan, Stevens made several specific points in his defense.

The four-decade lawmaker talked about the heavy workload imposed by his job: the constant contact with constituents, the committee meetings, the frequent international travel.

Stevens explained that while he ran matters outside the household, inside the walls of their homes his wife Catherine’s word was law and her hands controlled the checkbook. (Chuckles ensued when the Senator said that he would live differently—with things not always getting off the floor—if he lived alone.)

In practice, this division of responsibilities combined with Stevens’ role as a Senator to explain how he might simultaneously request to be billed for things he got and still be ignorant about whether those bills had been paid.

Stevens vociferously announced his strict code of ethics for transactions, like the meals with friends and lobbyists: “I don’t let people buy my lunch or buy my dinner.”

It was more difficult, however, if bills were sent to his Senate office, where either his wife or—as shown in his wife’s testimony, his Senate staff—would be in charge of paying them. After asking for the bills, Stevens would frequently be unaware if they had ever arrived so they could be paid.

And Bill Allen presented a particular problem: The CEO of VECO—the Alaska-based multinational oil-services firm—kept providing things for Stevens’ house that Stevens now claims he didn’t want without sending Stevens bills for them.

Ted Stevens’ Close Friend for Years Is Now Revealed to Him as a Crook and a Liar
The veteran lawmaker’s view of Bill Allen during the trial is clear: The man now unveiled as a crooked businessman has lied under oath about his old friend the Senator.

Stevens emphatically denied that he ever told his friend and designated home caretaker Bob Persons anything that would have led Persons to tell Allen that Stevens’ request for a bill was “just Ted covering his ass,” as Allen testified.

Stevens also denied Allen’s report of a conversation in which the Senator allegedly told the tycoon that he recognized that VECO was doing a lot more work on Stevens’ home renovation than the company was billing for.

And Stevens was particularly vehement in denying Allen’s testimony that Stevens told him in March of 2006 that Stevens needed to get invoices from Allen to protect both Allen and the Senator from the scrutiny that had befallen Anchorage real estate developer Jon Rubini after his business dealings with Stevens went under a microscope. “An absolute lie” was Stevens’ description of Allen’s account of that conversation at the two men’s annual “Boot Camp” retreat in the desert.

What was murkier, however, was the nature of Stevens’ relationship with Allen before the FBI announced its presence in their lives.

Stevens struggled to explain how the Harvard Law School graduate and Senate titan had become so close to the high school dropout and oil-services tycoon that Allen would feel free to put a number of big-ticket items—including a steel staircase, a professional gas grille, a wraparound deck on the ground floor, extensive rope lighting, a number of pieces of furniture—into the Senator’s home without telling him or charging him.

Stevens offered three explanations in his testimony: He and Allen had become such close friends that Stevens trusted Allen; Allen and Stevens shared the Girdwood home Stevens owned, with Allen using it more than Stevens did; and Allen’s brain injury in the summer of 2001 made him difficult to deal with. It was only years after the completion of the remodeling and other repairs, Stevens said, that he recognized the extent of Allen’s contributions to the project: “Now we realize there’s a lot more intersection with Bill Allen on this than we ever knew before.”

The prosecution will contend in closing arguments, however, that the documentary evidence of the Senator’s thank you notes and e-mails to Allen show gratitude, not complaints, from Stevens about what he knew that Allen had done at the chalet.

The Senator’s testimony suggested a different world on the Last Frontier, where a handshake and a reputation for honor are more important in getting work done than business formalities. You don’t ask for somebody’s rate or get a fixed price before you get something done: You ask to do something, they do it, you pay their bill, and you never use them again if they don’t treat you right.

Similarly, an easygoing lifestyle prevailed at the Girdwood chalet, so it was no surprise that Allen had a key—Stevens pointed out that at one point there were probably 22 keys out to that small-town home. It is on this point where Stevens is again disadvantaged by facing a jury in Washington, D.C. rather than in Anchorage, where the Senator’s invocation of “the Alaska way” would have more resonance.

The dog that hasn’t barked so far, however, is testimony by Stevens to explain why he and Allen kept going on the annual just-the-two-of-them guys’ trips after Allen sustained his brain injury and Allen kept forcing big-ticket items on Stevens against the Senator’s will. The jury has heard substantial testimony from Allen about those annual Boot Camps in California or Arizona where the two men retreated for dieting, walks in the desert, and enjoyment of wine, and Stevens has acknowledged that those vacations occurred. There would seem to have been plenty of time face-to-face, the prosecution will surely argue on closing, for Stevens to straighten Allen out on bills and behavior at the chalet.

Throughout the direct examination, Brendan Sullivan keeps control of his client, a man used to being in control. Showing his skill as one of the country’s best lawyers, Sullivan’s questions are clear and forceful, and he issues orders to Stevens on the stand in a way that less experienced or
less assured counsel might be afraid to.

Cross-Examination Puts Two Short Strivers in the Ring

Ted Stevens is very smart, and he has forgotten more than most people in the courtroom will ever know. At this point in his life, however, he is poorly suited to serve as a witness at his own criminal trial, and his cross-examination by chief federal prosecutor Brenda Morris shows why.

The problem is that Ted Stevens is not used to dealing with people who do not love him, owe him, or fear him. Brenda Morris is not a junior Congressional staff aide dazzled by his stature. She is not a mayor of a small Alaska town grateful for federal funding for a capital project. And she is not a freshman Congressman desperate to save a threatened Air Force base back in his swing district.

Ted Stevens’ popularity in Alaska is based on respect for his analytical ability, hard work, and dedication to fighting for his constituents. He has never in his life been the kind of smooth gladhander so many politicians are, and it is no accident that he lost two races for the U.S. Senate before getting into that body through appointment. Ted Stevens has never pretended to be some kind of genial Mr. Rogers; on the Senate floor he frequently wears ties showing the Incredible Hulk and the Tasmanian Devil.

The fireworks blazed in the cross-examination in part because the questioner and the questioned share some similarities. Ted Stevens and Brenda Morris are both short people who have parlayed sharp intelligence and fierce drive into impressive careers.

Ted Stevens grew up poor and in difficult emotional circumstances to become Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the longest-serving Republican Senator ever, and the man Alaska’s biggest airport is named after. Brenda Morris is a black woman who became Principal Deputy Chief of the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. Neither of these powerful personalities got where they are by backing down.

Stevens is full of anger and even contempt towards the federal prosecutor, as those who have watched him in the Capitol could predict. He is not shy about raising his voice in the Senate, where he has announced that he is “a mean, miserable S.O.B.” Stevens has signaled that his frequent flashes of feeling are for effect: He has told Alaskans that he has a trial lawyer’s temper—he uses it, but he doesn’t lose it.

Stevens was known to be a good trial lawyer as a vice-fighting federal prosecutor himself in territorial Fairbanks and as a private attorney in Anchorage in the 1960s, but he clearly struggles to keep control as Morris fires questions at him.

Stevens fights back repeatedly, and can’t resist criticizing the questions he is supposed to be answering.

“I think you better rephrase your question. That question is tautological….Is that a question? I thought it was a statement….You’re making a lot of assumptions that aren’t warranted….I’m not going to get into a numbers game—you tell me what year you’re asking about….You’re not listening to me. I answered it twice.”

When Morris asked if VECO served as the general contractor for the remodeling of his home, Stevens said “They were not. You know that.”

Asked whether the notes and e-mails he sent asking for bills from Allen were really just “covering your bottom,” the Senator shot back “My bottom wasn’t bare.”

The cross-examination late Friday afternoon did not follow the usual script from a trial advocacy handbook. Morris did not exercise complete control over Stevens and force him to make a number of damaging admissions. But the dramatic sparring might still hurt Stevens if the jury decides that Stevens’ feistiness and righteous attitude actually reflects the kind of arrogance that would lead a man to think that his record of service and achievement entitles him to gifts and freebies from rich friends. Once again, the demographics of the jury that came with holding the trial in Washington, D.C. might hurt Stevens, as a jury that is mostly composed of black women might resent the disdain the Senator displays towards Morris, an African-American female.

(To get more coverage of Stevens' testimony, you will gain additional insights--as I did--from Martin Kady II’s article “Stevens faces challenges to win case” in Politico and Tom Ramstack’s piece “Stevens: Cabin done ‘the Alaska way’” in the Washington Times.)

This Is a Sad Spectacle

Friday’s court session was almost unrelievedly grim and hostile, and the difficulty of the day matched the stony face Stevens has maintained virtually throughout a trial already four weeks long.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for him. Facing his 85th birthday next month, Stevens has done a lot in a life whose end he repeatedly referenced on the witness stand. U.S. Attorney in territorial days, Interior Department Solicitor, state legislator, and U.S. Senator for four decades, Ted Stevens helped bring statehood, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), major fishing legislation, and billions of dollars in capital projects and operating expenditures to the state.

As the Almanac of American Politics said, “No other senator fills so central a place in his state’s public and economic life as Ted Stevens of Alaska; quite possibly no other senator ever has.”

Even Stevens’ worst enemies would acknowledge his intelligence, hard work, determination, and pride.

His contributions and longevity have been recognized and rewarded repeatedly in Alaska and the Senate. He needed to be appointed to get into the Senate, but once in he came to enjoy great success at the polls. Stevens was re-elected once by winning every precinct in the state.

Until this year—when he garnered a tough challenge from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich—“Uncle Ted” was in recent years seen as so impregnable that he scared away any kind of stiff competition. One commentator observed that the Democratic nominees in the two previous election cycles suffered from mental illness. In 2002, Stevens essentially kept his fellow Alaska Senator in office, as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was behind late in the campaign until Stevens announced in a blizzard of commercials that he needed to have her in Washington with him as his partner in fighting for Alaska.

A civic group named Stevens “Alaskan of the Century” in 2000, and his state's newspapers refer to federal funding in Alaska as “Stevens money” without attaching those quotation marks.

Stevens rose to become one of a handful of the most powerful people in Congress, and as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee perhaps the most powerful over the purse. He served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, third in line for the Presidency.

After all that success and all that power, however, Stevens has seen much of his life turn to ashes in the two years since the FBI launched its raids on August 31, 2006 and made the long-running federal investigation into Alaska public corruption public.

He has been indicted on multiple felony counts and now endures a month-long trial. His attorneys are running up legal bills that have got to be well over $1 million by now. His old friend Bill Allen has testified against him.

Stevens is reportedly under federal criminal investigation for matters separate from those in this trial. Allen and another VECO executive have pleaded guilty to bribing his son Ben, the former President of the Alaska State Senate who has not been charged with wrongdoing but has publicly acknowledged being under investigation by several federal agencies.

Stevens has had his wife and his oldest daughter come in and testify as witnesses for him, and he narrowly escaped having his youngest daughter do the same before the prosecution's errors led to the elimination from the case of the charges involving that daughter.

And unless the judge somehow stops the trial, Stevens’ fate will be in the hands of jurors whose lives are very different from his.

Next up: Speculation on the Remaining Cross-Examination and the Closing Arguments

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