Jurors Given Two Portraits of Stevens

Posted September 25, 2008 at 6:55pm

In the first federal trial of a sitting U.S. Senator in more than 27 years, federal prosecutors Thursday depicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) as a savvy career politician who surreptitiously accepted valuable gifts, while Stevens’ attorney decried the accusations as misconstrued and placed the blame for any wrongdoing on a prime government witness.

[IMGCAP(1)]Stevens is charged with seven counts of filing false statements over an eight-year period to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts — primarily renovations to his home in Girdwood, Alaska — from the now-defunct VECO oil services firm. He has pleaded not guilty.

In opening arguments Thursday morning, federal prosecutors and Stevens’ defense offered divergent depictions of Stevens himself, as well as the overhaul of his Alaska home and his relationship with former VECO Chief Executive Officer Bill Allen.

“This is a simple case about a public official who took hundreds and thousands dollars worth of free financial benefits, and then took away the public’s right to know that information,” federal prosecutor Brenda Morris told jurors, asserting that Stevens repeatedly filed financial disclosure forms that failed to list those benefits.

“This public official, the defendant did these things so that the free financial benefits he was receiving wouldn’t stop and the public would never have to know.”

“This case is about concealment … [of] things that the defendant received from friends and benefactors, who were the powerful,” she added.

Defense attorney Brendan Sullivan later countered in his opening remarks: “The man is honest. He would not intentionally violate the law.”

During the proceedings, Stevens, dressed in a dark suit sporting an American flag lapel pin, blue shirt and dark blue tie, remained seated next to Sullivan.

In hourlong remarks, Morris said the government will lay out its case by illustrating what Stevens allegedly received, how much he knew about those gifts and his alleged efforts to conceal those items.

“The government’s evidence will demonstrate that the defendant clearly knows how to get things done with little said,” Morris said, adding that the Senator trusts few individuals but “those he does are very, very loyal to him.”

Morris offered short biographies of expected key witnesses, including longtime Stevens friends Bob Persons, who oversaw the renovation, and Bob Penney, a real estate developer, as well as Allen.

“Bill Allen is not perfect. In fact, he’s a convicted felon. He pled guilty to bribing multiple members of the state Legislature,” Morris acknowledged. Allen is one of eight individuals convicted to date as the result of a federal investigation into state and federal corruption in Alaska.

Morris said the prosecution will detail the renovation project, including work done by VECO employees to design and construct the house.

“You’ll learn that the defendant had ample knowledge that VECO employees were doing significant work at the chalet,” Morris said, then added: But “if you look at those financial disclosures forms, it’s as if VECO was never there.”

The prosecution also alleged that VECO provided subsequent maintenance work on the home, asserting that when Stevens needed an electrician: “We reach for the yellow pages. He reached for VECO.”

In addition to the House, Morris highlighted Stevens’ receipt of a massage chair valued at $2,700, a sled dog and an alleged sweetheart deal on a new car for one of his daughters.

In subsequent remarks, Sullivan characterized the government’s accusations as inaccurate and sought to paint Stevens as an absentee homeowner often subject to the whims of a friend, who at times delivered unwanted gifts and even failed to bill Stevens for the renovation project.

“The evidence will show he is not guilty,” Sullivan said, noting the defense will rely in large part on e-mails sent by Stevens.

“The evidence of intent is found in many, many ways,” Sullivan said, asserting Stevens did not intentionally file false financial statements with the Senate. “In this day and age when we write e-mails, you can read someone’s e-mails and you can get very good insight into what someone was thinking.”

Sullivan also referred to Stevens’ financial transactions, including closing a trust fund and procuring a mortgage, to demonstrate that the Senator and his wife, Catherine, intended to pay for the renovations themselves.

Although Stevens allegedly paid regular bills for the renovation work, Sullivan asserted that Allen suppressed a final bill for nearly $20,000 from a subcontractor, later paying that tab in conjunction with a separate invoice for work on his own home.

“You can’t report what you don’t know. You can’t fill out a form and say what’s been kept from you by the deviousness of Bill Allen,” Sullivan asserted.

The defense also sought to frame many of the alleged gifts as unwanted burdens for Stevens, including used leather furniture, a large gas grill, a toolbox and even $20,000 in outdoor Christmas lights.

“The evidence will show he didn’t want these things, he didn’t need these things, he didn’t ask for these things,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also offered a preliminary defense of suggestions that at the same time Stevens allegedly received gifts from VECO and its employees, the company also solicited the Senator and his staff for assistance, including the procurement of government grants, asserting that Stevens was merely assisting a home-state company.

“There’s nothing illegal about that. Bring ’em on. Line it up. Ted Stevens is crazy about his constituents,” Sullivan said. “To suggest that he or his office worked for his constituents, yes. Guilty.”

Former VECO Employees Take Stand

Two former VECO employees testified in the case Thursday — the first of as many as 200 individuals who could be called during the expected four-week trial.

Both witnesses, now employed by the Colorado-based CH2M Hill, which purchased VECO in mid-2007, testified about either the renovations to Stevens’ home or subsequent projects, including the installation of a backup generator.

During both interviews, federal prosecutors introduced numerous floor plans, drawings and photographs showing the home’s interior and exterior. The images included both the original A-frame home, and the subsequent two-story structure, created when a new first floor was constructed and the original home raised to become the second level.

Federal prosecutors first called John Hess, now a program manager for CH2M Hill, who served as the architect for the Girdwood house renovations in the summer of 2000.

Hess testified that Allen introduced him to Stevens at an Anchorage restaurant called Jens’ (pronounced Yens) in mid-2000, where they dined in a private room and discussed the would-be renovation project during the 90-minute lunch.

Hess said Stevens wanted to confer with his wife about the design plans, which he would later fax several versions of to Stevens’ Washington, D.C., office

“I felt it was definitely a cooperative effort from the two of them about what they wanted in the final design,” Hess said, noting he also spoke with Stevens briefly on the telephone several times, although he did not meet him in person again.

Hess also testified about a folder on which he’d made handwritten notes including the names of Stevens and his wife, Catherine, Allen, as well as Rocky Williams and Dave Anderson, both VECO employees involved with the project, and a subcontractor.

Derrick Awad, who worked as a laborer for VECO, also testified Thursday regarding his work to install a backup generator at Stevens’ home in late 1999.

Awad, who valued the generator at about $6,000, said VECO paid him for his work at Stevens’ home, and said neither the Senator nor his wife were home when the unit was installed.

Paul Singer contributed to this report.