Veco chief told Stevens contractor to 'eat' bill, jury hears

WASHINGTON — It would have been "business suicide" to cross the powerful Bill Allen, testified the carpenter who renovated Sen. Ted Stevens' home in Alaska and who said he was bullied into not sending the senator a final $13,393 bill.

Allen told him he should "eat" the final bill from the home renovations, testified Augie Paone, who took the stand Wednesday as a defense witness in the senator's corruption trial. Allen, the chief executive of Veco Corp., an oil field-services company that was one of Alaska's largest private employers before it was sold last year, was overseeing renovations at Stevens' home in Girdwood, Alaska, in 2000 and 2001.

Those renovations and other gifts are at the heart of the case against Stevens, whose corruption trial is in its fourth week. The 84-year-old Alaska Republican was charged with seven felony counts of making false statements on Senate financial-disclosure forms.

Stevens' wife, Catherine, is poised to testify Thursday, and the senator himself also might take the stand. During the lunch break Wednesday, Stevens got onto the witness stand to determine whether he could hear and see the lawyers. He also tested the microphones.

Stevens, who's listed as the final defense witness, doesn't have to take the stand. The judge has reminded him repeatedly that jurors aren't supposed to hold it against him if he doesn't.

Paone testified Wednesday that he objected to "eating" the bill for work at Stevens' home, and said so in a meeting with Allen, who told the carpenter he should "look at it as a political contribution," Paone said.

"At first I was shocked," Paone said. "I also tried to hold on to my composure. I knew I was in a bind, because I knew he had me in a spot where I really couldn't do anything."

Paone said he "thought about sending it over to the senator, but I knew it would be business suicide. I knew that I was between a rock and a hard place. I thought it was wiser — or better business sense on my side — to just leave it alone."

A few months later, Allen asked Paone's Christensen Builders to do work on his own house. Allen padded the cost of his own renovations to compensate for the $13,393 that Paone lost on the Stevens remodel, the carpenter testified.

"The understanding was that I will do some work for you but you still owe me $13,000," Paone said in court. "I was adamant that I was going to get paid for that bill that he owed me."

Stevens' legal team used Paone, who came across as a straight shooter, to chip away at Allen's credibility. Allen, who was the star witness for the prosecution, has pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers as part of the wide-ranging corruption investigation that drew in Stevens. Allen hasn't been sentenced yet.

One of the major themes of the defense case has been that Stevens and his wife, Catherine, paid all the bills that they received, and that Allen and other friends hid the true cost of the renovations, done mostly while the couple was in far-off Washington.

Yet some of Paone's testimony to a 2006 grand jury countered that theory, said prosecutor Joe Bottini, an assistant U.S. attorney in Anchorage. He asked Paone to refer to what he told grand jurors two years ago when the case was under investigation.

Didn't he go back to do additional work on the Stevens place?

He did, Paone said. He went back to work on the garage floor as well as to build shelves, including ski racks. Veco paid that $2,700 bill, Paone acknowledged. He also did some tiling on a fireplace at Stevens' home, he said, and the $850 expense was charged to Allen as part of the renovation work Paone did on the Veco chief executive officer's home.

Stevens' team also tried to use one of the senator's neighbors, Bob Persons, to attack one of the most memorable moments in the trial so far, when Allen told jurors that Persons said Stevens was "just covering his ass" and wasn't serious when he asked for a bill in 2002 for work on his house.

Persons, who owns the Double Musky restaurant in Girdwood, had a power of attorney to obtain a building permit on Stevens' behalf, oversaw the initial construction and handled bills for the family. Stevens' attorney asked him whether he, in fact, had told Allen that the senator was "just covering his ass" in asking for bills. Persons said he never said it.

"No," Persons said, adding under his breath, "crazy."

Persons, whose folksy mannerisms began when he took the stand and told the judge he'd rather be fishing, got a mild scolding for joking with the members of the jury while they were leaving for their afternoon break. The judge, warning Persons that he was to have no contact with jurors, asked him what he said.

"I said, `Do you have a bathroom back there?' " Persons said, a question that elicited chuckles even from Stevens, who usually sits stone-faced during testimony.

(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)

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