Stevens case could go to jury Monday

Senator Ted Stevens.
Senator Ted Stevens. Betty Udesen / Seattle Times / MCT

WASHINGTON — A jury could begin deliberations Monday in Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption case, leading to the possibility of a verdict less than two weeks before the veteran Republican stands for re-election in Alaska.

Stevens' lawyers should finish their defense late Wednesday or Thursday, and prosecutors will have the opportunity to present rebuttal witnesses. They'll likely have closing arguments Monday, said U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, then he'll give jurors the case.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the senator continued to work to sow doubt in the minds of the jury as part of their effort to prove the central theme of their defense: that the Alaska Republican thought he was paying every bill he was given for renovations to his home in the Alaska ski resort town of Girdwood.

They bolstered their case with testimony from Augie Paone, the Anchorage carpenter who did the bulk of the renovations that doubled the size of Stevens' once modest A-frame.

Stevens, 84, is on trial on charges that he lied on the Senate financial-disclosure forms he's required to file each year. He's accused of failing to report gifts and home renovations worth more than $250,000, chiefly from Veco Corp. and its former chief executive, Bill Allen, who was prosecution's star witness.

Prosecutors made the case that Veco paid for much of the work, including the decks, plumbing and a complete electrical overhaul. To that end, jurors heard exhaustive testimony from Veco employees and tradesmen — especially the electricians — who worked on Stevens' home yet never submitted bills for their work.

But Paone, a defense witness, said Tuesday that he was very specific about billing the Stevenses for plumbing and electrical supplies, suggesting Stevens and his wife could have thought they were paying for everything themselves.

Since Stevens is an elected official, Paone said he was very careful to do everything by the book. He met with Allen in late summer 2000 to go over the project's parameters.

"We were both under the impression that we were going to, based on the senator being an elected official, I was going to present all my bills to the senator or Bill to make sure he knew exactly what he was getting," Paone said.

Paone said Stevens' wife, Catherine, paid him promptly when he sent the first five bills.

But when Paone began to testify about the sixth bill, for $19,818, the judge stopped him, based on objections from prosecutors. In their opening statements, Stevens' lawyers told jurors that Paone was told by Allen and the construction foreman, Robert "Rocky" Williams, that he was going to "eat that bill."

Prosecutors argued that Paone's testimony Tuesday seemed likely to contradict his testimony to a grand jury, where he said that Allen never explicitly said he would "eat" the bill, but implied it. The judge will make a decision Wednesday morning on how to proceed.

Other witnesses weren't quite as successful for the defense as Paone.

Jeanne Penney, a close friend of Catherine Stevens, testified about a $3,000 stained-glass window that she bought as a housewarming present once the Stevenses finished construction on their home. Prosecutors have presented evidence that Stevens never disclosed the window as a gift.

Penney stumbled when she described for whom the gift was intended.

"I gave her a gift. I gave them a gift," she said, adding, "The interest of that gift was primarily to my friend, Catherine Bittner Stevens."

One of Stevens' daughters, Susan Covich, testified about another alleged benefit Allen offered Stevens: a pricey mechanical training course for Covich's son, Stevens' grandson. Allen helped Covich's son get into a Veco job-training program when he was a troubled young man struggling with addiction to drugs. She broke down as she described how her son, now incarcerated, lost his job with Veco despite his family connections.

Two other character witnesses also testified Tuesday. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Senate colleague since 1976, described Stevens as a "fine, decent, honorable man."

"I'd rate him at the very top," Hatch said. "He's one of the true lions of the Senate, along with my friend, Ted Kennedy. He's totally honest, totally straightforward, fights for his state like you can't believe."

Catherine Stevens is tentatively scheduled to testify, too, although the senator's lawyers haven't said whether she will.

Stevens himself is at the end of the witness list, as a potential final witness, but it remains unclear whether he will actually testify. Judge Sullivan reminded Stevens — out of the presence of the jury — that he was under no obligation to do so.

"It's your choice. You don't have to say anything," Sullivan said Tuesday morning.

Also Tuesday, Sullivan ruled that thousands of e-mails that Catherine Stevens sent would be turned over to federal prosecutors, who'd first asked for them more than a year ago.

(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)

Related stories from McClatchy DC