Final arguments in Stevens trial begin Tuesday

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2008 

WASHINGTON — In its four-year probe into corruption in Alaska politics, the Justice Department has secured five guilty pleas and won three convictions of lobbyists, business leaders and state lawmakers.

Now, it's up to prosecutors to persuade jurors to convict the most prominent figure of all in the federal investigation: Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate.

Tuesday will be devoted to closing arguments in the four-week-old corruption trial. Stevens' lawyers rested their defense Monday, after the 84-year-old senator took the stand in his own defense.

The case will go to jurors Wednesday morning. But even as they deliberate, Stevens faces a jury of different kind, 3,500 miles away. Alaska voters also will have a say in his fate on Nov. 4, when for the first time in his 40 years in the Senate, Stevens faces a Democratic opponent who has a crack at ousting him from office.

Stevens had sought an early trial date hoping he could face voters riding a not-guilty verdict. But with 15 days of testimony and additional time spent on legal wrangling, the case will get to the jury just two weeks before the election. If jurors have difficulty going back over the case, analyzing the instructions and coming to unanimous conclusions on each of seven counts, voters in Alaska may be making their own decisions before the trial is resolved.

For the jurors in Washington, it will come down to who was most believable: a parade of prosecution witnesses who detailed work they did on Stevens' home that was paid for by others, or Stevens and his wife.

Stevens maintained throughout his own testimony that he didn't want the things he was given — a grill, a fish sculpture, a generator, furniture, a high-tech massage chair, free labor — and that he never received bills for some of the work done on his home, even though he asked for invoices. He also continued to place much of the blame on his wife, Catherine, saying repeatedly that she was responsible for overseeing the renovations that led, in part, to his federal indictment. He simply was unaware of all renovation-related expenses, Stevens testified.

"Catherine paid for the work that was done at our house, she paid the bills and that's all there is to it," Stevens said, in what ended up being the final words by the final witness in his trial.

But jurors are unlikely to regard some of his assertions as credible, including Stevens' claim that a $2,695 massage chair was a loan, not a gift, from his friend Robert Persons in 2001.

The lead Justice Department prosecutor, Brenda Morris, read from an e-mail in which Stevens told Persons "the chair arrived and it's great," but added that he couldn't accept it as a gift, just as a loan. If it's a loan, Morris asked Stevens, why then is the chair still in his Washington, D.C., home more than seven years later?

"I told him I would not accept is as a gift," Stevens said. "We have lots of things in our house that do not belong with us."

Prosecutors have continued to maintain that this case is about disclosure, not about who paid the bills. Stevens is accused of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts, including free labor, which doubled the square footage of his A-frame cabin in Girdwood, Alaska.

Most of those gifts are alleged to have come from the now-defunct oilfield services firm Veco Corp. and its former chief executive, Bill Allen, the prosecution's star witness. Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska, was a close friend of Stevens and once ran one of the largest private employers in the state.

Stevens on Monday kept his cool and was not nearly as testy with Morris as he was on Friday, when he fired back at her cross-examination with questions of his own. Still, Morris landed some zingers Monday, especially when it came to demonstrating that Stevens was aware that there were bills he should've paid.

One of the bills Stevens received, from a plumber who fixed his boiler in 2006, had the notation "labor paid by Bill" on it, referring to Allen. Stevens, who paid $1,118 for parts, tried to sort out the matter and asked Allen to send him a bill for the labor, but Allen never did.

Couldn't Stevens have contacted the plumber himself if he really wanted to pay the $1,080 remainder of the bill, Morris asked.

"Yes, I could have," Stevens said.

"And you didn't?" Morris said.

"No, I did not," Stevens said.

Morris suggested Monday when Stevens was on the stand that a man who once served as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee should be fully aware of his disclosure responsibilities.

"There's no `I'm-too-busy' exception?" she asked, a question that earned a slight rebuke from the judge.

Said Stevens: "In the final analysis, it's my responsibility, yes I've said that."

(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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