Stevens used Veco as 'personal handyman,' prosecutor charges

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens used one of Alaska's biggest employers as his "own personal handyman service" and never paid Veco Corp. for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of work done on his home, a federal prosecutor charged Thursday as she outlined the government's case for finding the Alaska Republican guilty of lying on financial disclosure forms.

“You’ll learn that the defendant never paid Veco a dime for the work on the chalet. Not a penny,” the Justice Department’s lead prosecutor, Brenda Morris, told jurors in the opening minutes of Stevens’ trial.

Stevens’ lawyers countered that the senator is not guilty and that “every bill submitted was paid.” Attorney Brendan Sullivan blamed Veco and its chief executive officer, Bill Allen, for allowing costs to escalate without telling Stevens what the expenses would be or even showing him all the bills. Allen also installed fancy add-ons _ like a Viking gas grill and gaudy but pricey Christmas lights _ that were unnecessary and unwanted, Sullivan said.

“When you see the evidence … you’ll see he had no intent to violate the law, no intent to conceal anything,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t want these things, he didn’t ask for these things. He told some of them to take them back. He never once hid anything.”

Sullivan also hinted that the jurors would hear some uncomfortable and intrusive details about the relationship between the 84-year-old Stevens and his second wife, Catherine Stevens, whom Sullivan said opened the bank account they established to pay for home renovations expenses.

“Catherine ran the financial part of the renovation,” he said. “She was the person who opened the account, reviewed the bills, she was the person who wrote the check.”

But the jury also will hear from many of the people who did the work on Stevens’ home in Girdwood, Alaska, Morris said, referring to the A-frame cabin as a “chalet,” as the senator did. Morris said the workers will describe how even though Stevens paid subcontractors with whom he didn’t have a personal relationship, he never paid Veco for its work, thanks to his close connections to the company’s chief executive officer, Allen.

“If the defendant needed an electrician, he contacted Veco. If the defendant needed a plumber, he contacted Veco,” she said. “We reach for the Yellow Pages, he reached for Veco.”

Jurors also will hear about a 2006 conversation between Stevens and Allen, who already was cooperating with federal authorities at that point. In the conversation, Stevens told Allen that the worst that could happen to them if anyone found out what the company had done for him was that they'd have to spend a lot of money on lawyers _ and perhaps serve a little jail time. In the conversation, Stevens said they wouldn’t “be killed,” meaning that it wasn’t a matter of life or death.

Stevens knew he was doing wrong, Morris said, and contractors who the government alleges worked for free on the senator's home will testify that they were told not to talk about the work they were doing. “One of the guys will tell you that he was told by Bill Allen to keep it quiet, that it would be bad if the public found out,” Morris said.

“This is a simple case about a public official who took hundreds and thousands of dollars' worth of free financial benefits, and then took away the public’s right to know that information,” Morris said.

Stevens, the longest-serving Republican U.S. senator, faces seven felony counts of making false statements on his Senate financial-disclosure forms. The 84-year-old Stevens is up for re-election this year and is locked in a tight battle with his Democratic opponent, Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage.

The senator is accused of accepting more than $250,000 in home repairs, labor and furnishings from the now-defunct oil-services company Veco and Allen. Among the gifts he's accused of accepting are renovations to his Girdwood home that lifted it from its foundation and added a lower story, doubling it in size.

Allen, whose testimony will be the centerpiece of the trial, has pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska. He hasn't yet been sentenced.

Stevens scowled throughout the government’s 45-minute opening remarks, but he smiled during several portions of his lawyer’s remarks. Stevens, whose hearing is poor from his time as a pilot, listened through a set of earphones that enhanced the sound in the courtroom.

The prosecution’s first witness was an engineer called to give credence to the government's case that Stevens knew full well that Veco played a large role in the renovations.

John Hess, now a project manager for CH2M Hill, which bought Veco, testified that over the summer of 2000 he began drafting plans for the first-floor addition of the Stevens home. Hess said he learned from Allen that the project “was a cabin that belonged to Senator Stevens.”

After making a preliminary visit to Girdwood, Hess drew up some preliminary plans. At a lunch meeting with Stevens and Allen, Hess spoke with Stevens about what he wanted for the home addition. Stevens told him how he wanted the new area configured, Hess said.

A second witness, Derrick Awad, testified about installing a generator at Stevens’ home at Allen’s behest. He also said he was sent by Allen to clear snow from the Stevens’ deck. (Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)