Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Will the Lion Roar?

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 15

Washington, D.C.--

Looming over the trial all day was the question of whether the defendant would testify, but that question was bruited about outside the presence of the jury. Today’s testimony featured Sen. Stevens’ daughter alluding to the “creepy” behavior of VECO magnate Bill Allen at her father’s home while he was away and another Senator vouching for a fellow member of the world’s most exclusive club.

Another Veteran Senator Figuratively Wraps His Arm Around His Friend and Colleague

The testimony of Sen. Orrin Hatch was some of the day’s most straightforward. The Utah Republican called Stevens “one of the true lions of the Senate” and “one of the strongest, toughest, best, most decent people I’ve known” in the upper chamber.

“If he gives you his word, he’ll keep it. He’s totally honest,” Hatch said of Stevens, who has been the witness’s Senate colleague for 32 years.

Hatch’s testimony was generous to his long-time colleague but suffered in seeming perfunctory and not at all memorable compared to the glowing endorsement handed out last Friday by Colin Powell. The specific language in Hatch’s blessing often seemed uncomfortably close to the character testimony uttered last week by Powell and particularly by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D.-Hawaii.

Coming third in the line of character witnesses, Hatch’s vouching for Stevens did not seem unalloyedly good for the defense. The Utah Republican’s testimony underscored again Stevens’ good reputation and the seriousness of the jury’s decision (which are both good for Stevens), but also could reinforce the perception of the Senate as a Rich and Powerful Guys’ Club (which would be bad for Stevens).

Highly Successful Minority Women Say Nice Things About Senator Stevens, Too

Gwen Sykes told the jury the inspiring story of how she grew up in Anchorage, interned for Sen. Stevens in high school and later worked for him part-time and then full-time, and turned her experiences with him into a career that has made her first Chief Financial Officer for NASA and then CFO at Yale.

The vivacious African-American woman credited Stevens with much of her success. She said that the Senator had trusted her to do things that even her parents would probably not have trusted her to do, and that his trust helped make her the person she is today.

She also characterized Sen. Stevens as “always trustworthy….When he told you yes, he meant yes.”

Helvi Sandvick was yet another example of the breadth of Ted Stevens’ contacts—and the amount of thought that the defense put into witness selection for this jury composed mostly of minority women. Sen. Stevens knows prominent people of all ages, races, and sexes who would say nice things about him if asked to, and Williams & Connolly obviously worked hard to find just the right people. (The direct examination of her was handled by Joseph Terry, the latest addition to the Williams & Connolly defense team. Terry is a former two-time national intercollegiate debating champion, which gives you an idea of the kind of credentials the firm looks for.)

Originally from the Eskimo village of Kiana, Sandvick is the President of NANA Development Corporation, the business arm of NANA Corporation. The prosecution’s cross-examination gives the defense an opening on redirect to expand on how Stevens has been so helpful to NANA and other Alaska Native corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Expected Cost and Partial Actual Costs of Renovating a Girdwood Home

The shoe was on the other foot with Keith Tryck, a defense witness whose direct examination exposed him to some effective cross-examination that drove home the government’s themes.

A neighbor in Girdwood, Tryck told the jury that he had provided Stevens with an estimate back in 1997 of getting his own house raised that implied that the original plan for Stevens’ own renovation would probably only cost about $40,000. The prosecution got Tryck to acknowledge that the renovation Tryck was looking at did not include a whole host of things VECO arranged to put in Stevens’ home, including hardwood floors, a Jacuzzi, a new wrap-around deck, a Plexiglass roof over the deck, a steel staircase, a new fireplace, and a back-up generator with a transfer switch. Nor, Tryck agreed, would he have expected a renovation to come with free plumbing or electrical services.

Augie Paone, a contractor on the home remodeling job, went through a series of five bills to the Stevens family and an accompanying series of checks that Catherine Stevens paid. A legal dispute arose over what the jury will hear about why the Stevens never received his sixth bill and why Bill Allen, VECO’s long-time CEO, ended up taking care of the amount that Paone was owed. Judge Emmet Sullivan is scheduled to resolve that dispute tomorrow before Paone finishes his testimony.

A Daughter’s Disturbing Testimony

Susan Covich took the witness stand with the haunted look of someone who has seen much sadness. The demeanor of Ted Stevens’ oldest daughter clearly came in part over what has happened to her son, who has struggled for years with drug problems. Her son’s substance abuse became relevant when VECO paid to give him vocational training and prosecutors alleged that the provision of that educational program to Stevens’ grandson was another benefit the Senator failed to disclose as legally required.

The text of Covich’s testimony was that her son got kicked out of his training program after his drug problems resurfaced. The subtext was that Ted Stevens’ desire to help with a family tragedy marks him as a good man, not a criminal.

Crying softly on the stand, Susan Covich shows the effects of her son’s continuing struggles with drugs and incarceration. She also seems to bear the marks of the enormous strain the investigation, the indictment, and the trial must have put on Ted Stevens and those close to him.

The rest of Covich’s testimony concerned her experiences staying at her father’s chalet in Girdwood, which is located between Anchorage and her home in Kenai. This testimony focused on how much Bill Allen was at the home when she came to it, including times late at night. On one occasion when she planned to stay the night, "There were lights on, cars in the parking lot. It just got too creepy, so I just drove on."

Noting that she would find bedroom doors closed while Allen was there, Covich testified that she was so disturbed by the atmosphere that she started staying at the hotel in Girdwood instead of her father’s chalet.

There are two explanations for the defense’s eliciting of Covich’s testimony. The first is the suggestion that Allen put a lot of the things in Stevens’ house—like the fancy professional gas grille—for Allen’s own benefit and not for the Senator, as Allen knew that he had a key to the chalet and could use it for most of the year himself while Stevens attended to his duties in Washington.

Given the recent revelations about the investigations into Allen’s alleged relations with underage girls, another possible use of Covich’s testimony regarding the Girdwood home may be a defense argument that Allen did not want to charge Stevens for the improvements VECO made to the Senator’s chalet because Allen was using that house for orgies.

The Defense’s Biggest Decision in the Trial

Contrary to what this blogger has predicted, the defense announced twice today that Ted Stevens is scheduled to be its final witness. These announcements were made outside the presence of the jury and can be interpreted as just a way for the defense to keep open all its options, but it seemed a lot more possible today than I ever would have thought.

Deciding whether to call the defendant as a witness is ordinarily the biggest decision the defense ever makes in a criminal trial. Stevens’ lawyers face two issues in this decision.

The one frequently mentioned issue is Stevens’ legendary temper and admitted cantankerousness, as the 84-year-old Senator could come off to the jury as mean, angry, and/or arrogant. The more common and perhaps bigger issue, however, is the risk posed by forcing Stevens to confront personally all the prosecution’s evidence. If Stevens testifies, he faces the prospect of having to explain every photograph of the improvements to the house, every e-mail he wrote or received about the progress of the remodeling, and every one of the taped conversations. This process can be brutal for a defendant, as a skilled prosecutor can make that cross-examination effectively serve as another closing argument for the government.

In weighing the decision, lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan may be pondering two famous trials defended by his law firm. An example he would like is John Connally, the former Treasury Secretary who was acquitted after testifying on his own behalf. Evan Thomas’s The Man to See, a biography of Connally’s attorney Edward Bennett Williams, recounts how the jury foreman knew that he had reasonable doubt as soon as he heard the earnest-sounding and well-prepared testimony of the polished defendant.

Much less comforting to Sullivan, however, may be the memory of a case in which he himself served as defense counsel: U.S. v. Oliver North. Testifying in his own defense, the former National Security Council official tried to explain that he took a $13,800 security fence from a government contractor because he was afraid that his family was otherwise insufficiently protected from terrorists. The jury convicted him of accepting an illegal gratuity, although his conviction on that count and two others were reversed on appeal based on legal issues.

Sullivan’s mentor Edward Bennett Sullivan generally put his criminal defense clients on the stand and—as the North case showed—Sullivan has done it himself.

All this suggests that Sullivan will listen to the testimony of Bob Persons and Catherine Stevens and then decide at the last minute whether the Senate’s lion will actually make a sound in the courtroom.

That decision will come soon, as the defense is running out of witnesses whose testimony Judge Emmet Sullivan will not bar as cumulative or otherwise inadmissible. The judge has announced that closing arguments might come Monday.

1 comment:

Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3 said...

Not really the most credible witness, I'd say. Remember his speech at the UN vouching there were WMD in Iraq? Look at this cartoon on the Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3 blog!