Politics & Government

Colin Powell: Stevens' reputation 'sterling'

WASHINGTON — Colin Powell, the retired Army general and former secretary of state, characterized Sen. Ted Stevens in court Friday as a "trusted individual" and a man with a "sterling" reputation.

"He was someone whose word you could rely on," said Powell, who self-deprecatingly described himself as the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who retired and then "dabbled a bit in diplomacy."

Stevens, on trial for lying about gifts on financial disclosure forms, has the right during the defense portion of the trial to ask character witnesses to speak on behalf of his "truthfulness and veracity." The first such character witness, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, spoke Thursday. Three others are set to testify on Stevens' behalf but the highest-profile witness, by far, will be Powell.

The former secretary of state said he had known Stevens for 25 years, mostly in the senator's role as the top defense appropriator on the Senate Appropriations Committee. In Stevens, "I had a guy who would tell me when I was off base, he would tell me when I had no clothes on, figuratively, that is, and would tell me when I was right and go for it," Powell said. "He's a guy who, as we said in the infantry, we would take on a long patrol."

Powell said he had never been to Girdwood and has no independent knowledge of the charges Stevens faces. When asked outside of the courtroom after his testimony whether Stevens asked him personally to testify to his character, Powell said he couldn't recall if it was the senator or one of his lawyers. But he didn't think twice about testifying, Powell said.

"Not at all," he said, snapping his fingers to signify it was a snap decision.

Stevens, 84, faces charges of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts between 1999 and 2006. Most of that total is related to a major renovation project that doubled the size of Stevens' home in Girdwood, Alaska, with much of the work allegedly done for free by an oil-field service company run by Stevens' friend, Bill Allen.

Stevens' legal team hoped to have 10 character witnesses testify for the senator, but the judge is limiting it to five. One proposed witness, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is probably too ill to testify, the defense said. The defense said it would like to call Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, former Transportation Secretary William Coleman, former District of Columbia council member John Ray, Olympic medalist and sportscaster Donna DeVerona and a fellow veteran from Stevens' World War II Army Air Corps unit, Leroy Parramore.

Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, testified briefly, although merely as someone who was familiar with Stevens' work in Alaska, not as a character witness. The jury also heard from several other Alaskans who have had positive encounters with Stevens over the years, including a pediatric doctor based in Anchorage, Dani Bowman. Stevens was instrumental in helping evacuate a sick baby who needed emergency medical treatment not available in Alaska, Bowman said.

"He didn't listen to the rest of the question, he said, `Yes, I'll help you,'" she said, choking up with emotion. "It was beautiful."

Jurors also heard a morning's worth of testimony from people who worked on Stevens' home and were paid by Stevens and his family, or were aware of gifts he had received.

The defense team also had a private real estate appraiser and two assessors with the municipality of Anchorage testify. Their testimony is designed to show jurors that the value of the Stevens' house, post-renovations, was such that it couldn't have possibly equaled the amount of money prosecutors say was put into it in free labor and gifts.

Prosecutors countered that theory by asking the appraisers whether the value of a home always equals the money people spend on renovations.

"A lot of times it costs a whole lot more to do the renovation work," doesn't it, asked prosecutor Nicholas Marsh.

"That's possible," conceded Marty McGee, the Anchorage municipal assessor.

Another defense witness, the former chairman of a nonprofit in Alaska, testified Friday morning that he was directed by a close friend of Stevens' to "create a paper trail" that would show a husky puppy given to the senator was worth one-fourth what the friend paid for it.

Ronald Rainey, a retired utility worker from Soldotna, Alaska, was called by Stevens' defense to discredit the government's claim that the blue-eyed husky was a $1,000 dog -- a value far in excess of the $285 gift limit in effect for the Senate that year.

Rainey testified that the Kenai River Sportfishing Association gave the dog to Stevens, not the man who bid $1,000 for it at the group's annual charity auction. The bidder was Bob Penney, an Anchorage real estate developer, the founder of the association and Stevens' good friend.

But if Penney bought the dog with his $1,000 bid, why did Stevens report it in his 2003 Senate disclosure as a gift from the association with a value of $250? There, Rainey stumbled as a defense witness.

According to Rainey, Penney bid up the value of the dog. When the auction hammer came down, he was the last bidder.

"It was a joke," Rainey said. "We knew he got stuck with something he didn't want."

Related stories from McClatchy DC