Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Little Cloak and Dagger Among Friends

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 11--Part One

Washington, D.C.--

Racehorses, oil wells, and plots to hide home-repair bills made for a wild ending to today’s events.

A picture of a U.S. Senator’s high-rolling friends scheming to beef up his bottom line emerged from telephone calls played as the dramatic end of a courtroom day. Questions remain about how much Ted Stevens knew about what his closest buddies were doing, how much he should have known—and how much he wanted to know.

The conversations were between Bill Allen, CEO of VECO, and Bob Persons, owner of the Double Musky, a popular “Mountain Cajun” restaurant in Girdwood. Allen arranged for VECO to remodel, maintain, and repair Stevens’ chalet in Girdwood, and Persons was Stevens’ designated caretaker of the residence.

What those gentlemen didn’t know back in February of 2006 was that the FBI was listening in as the pair talked about how to help their pal Ted Stevens.

Allen talks to Persons in the first conversation about allocating to Allen half of a bill for work at Stevens’ home. Allen says “We’ve got be real careful.”

Persons agrees about the need for care, referencing the horse-racing and horse-rearing partnership all three men appear to be in. Persons, the partnership’s apparent manager, says that Stevens has told him “‘Make sure that I pay my share’” and that Persons has responded “‘I billed you first.’”

Persons then tells Allen that he was holding down the expenses made by the horse partnership to help Stevens, and cites a comment by Stevens’ wife Catherine to explain why.

“As Catherine says, Ted gets hysterical when he has to spend his own money….He gets hysterical because he can't afford to pay a bunch of money, I don’t think.”

"I know," Allen responds.

In the second call between the two men, they strategize about how to deal with a bill from a plumbing subcontractor for work done at Stevens’ home (apparently the same bill as discussed before). Sent to Stevens, the bill shows “Labor paid by Bill.”

Allen and Persons talk about how Stevens has complained about Allen covering the labor costs while giving Stevens the bill for the materials only and how the Senator has announced that he wants to pay the labor bill as well.

Persons is unhappy with himself for not seeing that notation on the bill before Stevens got it. Allen is dismayed as well.

Persons tells Allen “I know that you didn’t want him to know that.” Allen agrees, and says that he also didn’t any other people to know that he had taken care of the labor portion of the bill.

“We don’t need this thing floating around….We need to make that guy from Chugach Sewer and Drain make it disappear from his records,” Persons says.

Persons warms to his suggestion: “Make him understand that Ted’s paying for everything. That’s the safest thing, Bill.”

Persons told Allen that Allen should get a check from Stevens to cover the labor costs, pointing out that “You don’t have to cash it.”

Persons repeatedly emphasizes an important feature of this ruse. Allen would need to make a copy of the check from Stevens, so that if there was ever any scrutiny he could show the copy to demonstrate that Stevens had paid him.

It almost seems like a movie as the slow-talking oil-services baron and the Alabama-accented restaurateur laugh over their planned deception.

Then it’s on to the horse business, as the men talk of pregnant mares and future races. Persons tells Allen that the next day “Cloak and Dagger’s going to run at the third race at Santa Anita.”

Switching topics, Persons talks to Allen about an exciting oil prospect—possibly in Alaska’s Cook Inlet--that the two men have apparently previously discussed. Persons talks about all the money that could be made by investing in it: “Don’t want to miss out on a big lick like that.”

Persons then says that what is really important is that the prospect is a state lease, meaning that U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens could thus get in on the sweet deal.

Coming at the end of the day, these tapes clearly had a big impact on the jury. The fact that the jury heard them at all was a credit to good lawyering by the prosecution, which got the judge to let them in on a theory that Stevens, Allen, and Persons were involved in a joint venture to keep Stevens from paying for work at his house.

Knowing the power of the tapes, the defense had fought a vigorous but losing battle to exclude the evidence as irrelevant, excessively prejudicial, and “triple hearsay.” As this incident suggests, what is often most important in a trial is not how evidence is presented but the legal battles that decide what evidence gets into court at all. Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan have crafted many of the prosecution’s legal arguments, and they apparently deserve credit.

The prosecution will argue that these conversations give credence to Allen’s trial testimony that one reason he didn’t bill Stevens for work VECO did at Stevens’ house is that Persons had told him that Stevens didn’t want to be billed and that any statement to the contrary was “just Ted covering his ass.”

The defense will contend, on the other hand, that Allen and Persons were conspiring behind Stevens’ back. The defense paints Allen as a false friend of Stevens and will bring in Persons to call Allen a liar for attributing the ass-covering statement to Persons. Hearing the tapes today will make the jury very interested in just what the apparently still loyal Persons has to say.

Coming Up: Gambling on the Big Decisions

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