Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Reckoning

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 17

Washington, D.C.--

Nobody could imagine this day would ever come.

Ted Stevens, Alaska legend and Senate icon, took the witness stand today in his own defense in a criminal trial that threatens his legacy and his political life.

A wave of emotion washed over those witnessed this historic event at the end of a long day of speculation about whether the 40-year Senator and “Alaskan of the Century” would actually tell his story under oath.

Before we got to Ted Stevens taking the stand at the end of the day, two other witnesses provided testimony critical to the trial and to Sen. Stevens’ hopes of holding onto his seat. And it is with those two star witnesses—Bob Persons and Catherine Stevens—that we start.

The Caretaker is a Net Minus for the Defense

The momentous day starts with federal prosecutor Nicholas Marsh continuing his cross-examination of Girdwood restaurant owner Bob Persons, who kept an eye on the chalet’s renovations at the request of his friend the Senator.

The government lawyer’s technique improved overnight. He kept good control of the witness and showed an eye for the telling detail.

Marsh got Persons to admit that after the investigation started and Persons was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, Persons called contractor Augie Paone on a pay telephone to talk to him about the Stevens home renovation project. The prosecution will surely hammer on this suspicious act to say that it screams consciousness of impropriety—if not guilt—on Persons’ part.

Although Persons testified that he had reminded VECO CEO Bill Allen of all the times that the Senator had told Allen to bill Stevens for any work VECO had done on the chalet, Marsh got Persons to admit that he had never received any invoice from Allen.

Marsh also employed a mocking tone effectively in a reference to Persons’ testimony yesterday that Allen was “crazy” to say that Persons had told him to ignore any of Stevens’ requests for invoices because “ ‘Ted’s just covering his ass.’ ”

The prosecutor said “You weren’t trying to cover anybody’s butt here sir, were you?”

When Persons answered “No,” Marsh asked innocently “That would be a crazy thing to suggest?”

The prosecutor also zeroes in on the massage chair that Persons provided to Stevens. Persons and VECO CEO Bill Allen saw a model of the chair at a mall at Washington’s Union Station while the pair were in the nation’s capital for President Bush’s inauguration in 2001. Persons bought the chair online at a cost of approximately $2,700 and shipped it to the Senator’s home in Washington, and initially told investigators that he intended to make it a gift to Stevens.

Marsh gets Persons to concede that a recent review of e-mails shown to him by his lawyer had helped Persons remember that Stevens had told him that the Senator considered the chair to be a loan.

Asked by Marsh what terms he negotiated on the loan of the chair, which still sits in Stevens’ Washington home seven years after its arrival, Persons responds that he should have gotten the chair back, but it was difficult because the chair was in Washington and Persons lived in Alaska.

On redirect examination, Persons exploded. Asked about his initial interview by the FBI when his house was searched in 2006, Persons denounced one of the agents who questioned him.

“That was the most hateful human being I ever met in my life,” Persons said. “That guy made me understand why there’s a lot of innocent people in prison….It was like being mentally waterboarded.”

The outburst—which seemed contrived to some—reminded me of the old saying that a conservative is a guy who has just received his tax bill and a liberal is someone who just had a family member indicted.

The Prosecution Tries to Portray Catherine Stevens as Implausibly Misinformed, Curiously Incurious, and Pampered by Federal Assistance

Catherine Stevens gave testimony on direct examination that was broadly consistent with themes frequently sounded by the defense. She was responsible within the household for the home renovation project, as her husband Ted was too busy and she was between jobs. She paid the bills for the remodeling as they came in, and believed that she had paid all those bills.

To buttress these claims, Catherine Stevens stated that she had thought Bill Allen had arranged for Augie Paone to be the general contractor for the remodeling job. Stevens testified that she thought VECO employees Rocky Williams and Dave Anderson worked for Paone—not VECO—so she assumed the bills from Paone would have included the charges for their labor. Defense attorney Rob Cary walked her through those bills and the corresponding checks paying them one-by-one. The process was so tedious that it sometimes seemed that the defense was trying to bore the jury into an acquittal.

Catherine Stevens has an impressive background that long predates her marriage in 1980 to Ted Stevens following the death of his first wife. Catherine Stevens served as a federal prosecutor in Southern California before moving to Fairbanks, where she served as District Attorney. More recently, she has worked as General Counsel for the National Endowment of the Arts and Occidental Petroleum.

Stevens testified that she didn’t like a number of the improvements that the chalet received that previous testimony has established came from VECO. The witness said the steel staircase was dangerous and ugly. The professional Viking gas grille was a fire hazard, she said, that she didn’t want on her deck. The furniture that Bill Allen provided was “totally inappropriate for the chalet.” Not only was a big black couch not to her taste, but it even had cigarette holes in it.

Sen. Stevens’ wife also talked about evidence she observed that someone else was using the chalet a substantial amount when the Stevenses weren’t there. Catherine Stevens found needles at her home. She associated them with Allen, whom she believes is a diabetic.

Catherine Stevens’ demeanor on the stand seemed to some spectators to be relaxed—even laid-back—for the wife of a U.S. Senator on trial for his political life and legacy. A vigorous cross-examination shook her up, however. One observer described the style of Brenda Morris as “conversational incredulous,” and the prosecutor asked tough questions at an appealing tone and pace.

Morris pressed Stevens on her claim that she didn’t know Williams worked for VECO, noting that the Senator’s wife had spent time shopping for construction supplies with him. Similarly, the prosecutor underscored that Stevens’ claim of ignorance about Williams’ employer was odd in that she had sent him a bonus for his work, and had used VECO’s address to get it to him. (The bonus was two airline tickets anywhere Delta flies, plus a $2,000 check.) Stevens also sent door knobs for the chalet from Washington to Williams at VECO.

If Stevens disliked all the furniture she found at the chalet that she knew Allen had provided, why didn’t she make him take it away or arrange to take it to the dump? Pointing out that Catherine Stevens—a partner in a large Washington law firm—makes close to $500,000 per year, Morris suggested that the Senator’s wife could afford to get the furniture moved.

Stevens responded that she felt constrained because Allen had removed her furniture when he provided the furniture she didn’t like. The witness also added that “Once he hit his head in 2001, it was almost impossible to have a conversation with him.” (The prosecution will surely point out in closing arguments that Ted Stevens continued to take annual “Boot Camp” vacations with Allen for years after the VECO CEO’s motorcycle accident left him with a brain injury.)

Morris was particularly sharp in exploring why the Stevenses hadn’t paid for a wraparound deck installed on the home’s ground floor in 2002, after the initial renovations had been completed. Stevens testified that she had once checked with her husband’s Senate staff to see if a bill for the deck construction had arrived, and then forgot to pursue the matter.

That reference to the role of Stevens’ Senate staff in paying his family’s personal bills was part of a larger line of questioning about just how much assistance federal employees managed the Senator’s household’s finances. Morris got Stevens to admit that the Senator’s staff had paid some of her credit card bills (apparently including accounts at Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus) and some utility bills. That same Senate aide sometimes managed her checkbook and completed insurance renewals. Asked if the Senate staff mowed the lawn at the Senator’s home, Stevens said that if that occurred she was sure that the family paid for it. (An article by Martin Kady II of The Politico noted that a database showed that the Senate aide paying the bills made $126,000 in 2007.)

The questions about whether Catherine Stevens used a Senate staff member as “a human ATM machine” who sent cash home with the Senator in his briefcase is not directly relevant to the charges of concealment of gifts and loans at issue in the case, but fit into a broader theme likely to be advanced by the prosecution. That theme is that both Sen. Stevens and his wife lived in such rarefied air that they would come to expect people to give them things for free.

On redirect examination, the defense suggested that Stevens could have been led to believe that Williams worked for Paone instead of VECO because Williams signed a number of the bills that Stevens got from Paone’s company. In addition, the defense suggested that the clever theory that the involvement of Senate staff in managing the Stevens family’s household finances might flow from an attempt to comply with Senate ethics rules making it critical to track the family’s income.

A Giant Starts Out Strong

With the jury outside the courtroom, the judge made one more try to make sure that this highly unusual criminal defendant knew that people in his situation had an absolute right not to testify. The former prosecutor turned U.S. Senator looked at Judge Emmet Sullivan and said “It’s a privilege and a duty.”

Stevens took the stand with the jury in the box. Under questioning by lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, Stevens began his testimony with a ringing denial of the charges.

"Senator, when you signed those forms, did you believe they were accurate and truthful?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did you ever intentionally file false disclosure forms?"

"No, I did not."

"Did you ever engage in any scheme to conceal anything from the Senate?"

"No, sir."

Brendan Sullivan then guided Stevens through the story of the first five decades of his life, and it’s an impressive story. Following a hardscrabble Depression-era childhood, Stevens made determined efforts to get into the military in World War II. A pilot for the Army Air Force, Stevens’ service in China flying missions behind enemy lines earned him several medals.

Stevens worked as a lifeguard to finance his college education and used his G.I. Bill benefits to become a lawyer. He served as a lawyer in Alaska and in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer for the federal government. He played an important role in achieving statehood for the Last Frontier.

In the early 1960s, Stevens opened up a law practice in Anchorage and lived there with his first wife Ann and their five children. After serving as a state legislator, Stevens was appointed to the U.S. Senate, and now has been elected seven times.

Sen. Stevens then told the jury about an airplane crash in 1978 that killed his wife Ann and four others while leaving Sen. Stevens as one of only two survivors. He testified about how his daughters set him up on a blind date with Catherine and how they married in 1980.

That ended Stevens’ 25 minutes of testimony today, which is but a small fragment of the many hours he will spend on the stand.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Dear Cliff: I had not seen your writing before and am impressed with the balance with which you are covering the Steven's case. I follow all alaska events closely here in Caracas, even the weather!
Michael deMan