Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial--Day Seven

September 30, 2008

Washington, D.C.--Two old Alaska friends met up again Tuesday, and it was a long way from the days of wine and salmon they used to share together.

Republican Sen. Ted Stevens faced his buddy Bill Allen in a Washington courtroom, and the scene was surreal.

Stevens is charged with seven felony counts of failing to disclose gifts of more than $250,000 on his Senate disclosure forms. The gifts were from VECO and Allen, the oilfield services company's long-time CEO. Stevens denies the charges and blames Allen for showering him with gifts he didn't want or didn't know he got.

Allen's testimony Tuesday described how he had joined a group of wealthy businessmen that socialized with Stevens. Among the members of this solidly middle-class jury are a schoolteacher, hospital room scheduler, and receptionist. It's highly unlikely that any of these jurors has ever traveled to distant locales to fish with multimillionaire CEOs like Allen, as the blunt-spoken Allen described Stevens as doing frequently.

And surely none has ever gone to "Boot Camp," the name Allen said he and Stevens gave to get-togethers at which participants would eschew hard liquor for wine and an occasional cigar in an effort to shed a few pounds. Allen said that he and Stevens first started going to Boot Camp in Palm Springs, Calif., but switched their annual retreats to a small town in Arizona after they found that Stevens drew too much attention in the desert resort.

Allen told the jury Tuesday that his affection for Stevens led him to give the senator a VECO-paid generator worth at least $5,000 and motivated him to accept a loss in a car deal in which Stevens' daughter ended up with a brand-new Land Rover and Allen got a 1964 Mustang plus $5,000 in cash.

The jury has already heard a parade of witnesses testify in the first four days about how Allen arranged for Stevens to get a substantial discount on work at his official residence in the Alaska ski town of Girdwood. VECO acted as general contractor on an extensive renovation, which almost doubled the size and added amenities like a wrap-around deck. Prosecutors contend that Stevens never paid VECO a penny.

Other gifts Stevens allegedly took without reporting, as legally required, include a $29,000 bronze statue of a fish, a $2,700 vibrating massage chair, a $3,200 stained-glass window, a puppy with Iditarod sled dog bloodlines, and fancy rope lighting so bright the neighbors complained.

Stevens has the nation's toughest white-collar criminal defense firm on his side as he tries to beat this case. Brendan Sullivan, the captain of the squad of Williams & Connolly attorneys, will be trying to shred Allen on cross-examination tomorrow in what will be a highlight of a trial that could go on for two weeks more.

Sullivan will zero in on the facts that Allen is testifying for the government pursuant to a plea agreement in which he admitted bribing several Alaska state legislators and that Allen suffered a head injury in a 2001 motorcycle accident that left his speech affected. The reported $1,000-per-hour lawyer will try to paint Allen as a brain-addled felon, anxious to shade his testimony to help persuade the prosecution to ask for a lighter sentence for his bribery.

The attacks by Stevens' lawyers on Allen—plus the defense's efforts to blame any laxity on Stevens' wife, who supposedly was minding the family finances—may get the senator acquitted. You couldn't blame Stevens, however, if today he looked across at his old buddy and wished that he'd never met Allen.


Several witnesses testified earlier in the day before Bill Allen confronted Ted Stevens in the late afternoon.

Bill Allen and VECO repeatedly sent John Fugate sent to work at Ted Stevens’ Girdwood home. On one occasion, the electrician went out to repair electrical tape previously installed at the chalet, and he met Ted Stevens there. The electrician estimated that he spent two and a half hours on the job—counting commuting time from Anchorage—and said that his hourly rate was about $75 per hour then. Fugate said that Ted Stevens sent him a thank you note and a keychain, but did not pay him.

The defense pointed out again on cross-examination that the repair was done to new equipment, repeating its theme that much of the apparently free work VECO did for Stevens on his chalet was make-up work for tasks that the corporation had done poorly the first time.

Jack Billings, another electrician, testified that he also went repeatedly to work on repairs and maintenance at the Stevens chalet at the direction of Bill Allen. Billings said that he would pick up a key to the house from Allen’s secretary. Comically, on one visit Billings drove the 40-45 miles from Anchorage to Girdwood to work on a device that produces instantly hot water. It turned out to be a short stop at the site--Billings found that the problem was that the device was plugged into the garbage disposal, plugged it into the right place, and the “Insta-Hot” device worked.

Asked about all his trips to the chalet to fix small problems made him Ted Stevens’ handyman, Billings said no. Given his duties, Billings said that he might have been Bill Allen’s handyman, because he did whatever job the VECO chief gave him.

A stained-glass artist testified that a friend of Ted Stevens named Bob Penney paid him $3,200 for a custom-made window installed at the Stevens chalet. The artist had to go through two versions of the window before Catherine Stevens finally approved the design. Ted Stevens would not look at the design when the artist approached him in a restaurant parking lot, essentially saying approval of the custom stained-glass window was his wife’s department.

I will outsource the report of the testimony of Jerie Best to Richard B. Schmitt of the Los Angeles Times. His story “Ted Stevens got special deals, Bill J. Allen tells court” includes this account:

Another government witness testified Tuesday how Stevens benefited from a nonprofit group called the Kenai River Sportfishing Assn.

The group sponsors a charity auction and annual fishing derby known as the Kenai River Classic to raise money to help sustain the famed fishing grounds and habitat.

The event, which Stevens helped organize in the 1990s, attracts several hundred businessmen and lawmakers each year.

Jerie Best, a volunteer who has helped organize the auction on several occasions, recalled how she once arranged for an Iditarod sled dog puppy to be shipped to Stevens' home in Washington after a friend of the senator won it at one of the charity auctions.

Best also recounted how she was approached by a group of businessmen who purchased a $29,000 bronze statue of salmon for Stevens at another auction in 2002.

"A corporate lobbyist came up to me and said, 'We are putting together a consortium to purchase the statue for the senator's library,' " Best said. She also said Stevens was presented with a specially engraved rifle every year to commemorate his involvement.

Prosecutors contend that none of those gifts was properly accounted for, and that the artwork ended up on the porch of Stevens' home in Girdwood. Stevens' lawyers contend the bronze was intended for a charitable foundation and library being set up to mark his years in government service.

"Is Sen. Stevens a charity?" prosecutor Brenda Morris asked.

"Not that I know of," Best answered.

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