Stevens combative on witness stand
Pressed on gifts totaling $250,000
WASHINGTON - A combative Senator Ted Stevens jousted angrily with a federal prosecutor yesterday over his relationship with a crooked businessman who provided gifts and thousands of dollars' worth of free work on his house in Alaska.
The famously short-fused Stevens struggled to keep his temper in check as prosecutor Brenda Morris pressed him about the more than $250,000 in renovations and other gifts he received through millionaire businessman Bill Allen, who founded VECO Corp., an oil services company.
Stevens is charged with trying to hide the gifts and free labor by lying on Senate disclosure forms. Stevens insists that he and his wife paid all the renovation bills that were given to them.
"If it was a gift, why did I ask for a bill?" said Stevens in one exchange with Morris.
"To cover your butt," Morris said calmly.
"That wasn't fair, ma'am," Stevens replied.
Morris will continue questioning Stevens - the last witness in the three-week-long trial - on Monday. Lawyers will then make closing arguments, with US District Judge Emmet Sullivan saying he expects the jury to start deliberating early next week.
As Morris repeatedly needled him on his relationship with Allen, VECO and the new things at his home, Stevens shot back, "You're not listening to me, I've answered it twice," or "I'm not going to get into a numbers game with you."
Stevens insisted that the items he received from Allen, such as furniture, a backup generator, and a toolbox, were from a drinking buddy who had keys to his Girdwood home, not material from VECO Corp.
"VECO is not Bill Allen to me. Bill Allen is not VECO. You're the one bringing VECO in here. Bill Allen is my friend," Stevens said.
Allen, an entrepreneur who made a fortune in Alaska's North Slope oilfields, testified for the prosecution earlier this month. He faces sentencing for his conviction on charges of scheming to bribe Alaska lawmakers.
And Stevens told jurors that he didn't want the things Allen brought over anyway, and continually asked him for bills or to take the things away. But Allen didn't.
"You were a lion of the Senate, but you didn't know how to stop this man from putting big-ticket items at your home?" asked Morris, who pressed the Republican icon on why he didn't just ask for his keys back.
The renovations are at the heart of Stevens's corruption trial. The Alaska Republican appeared as his own star witness, trying to convince jurors that he paid every bill he received for his 2000 home renovation project and didn't know he received any freebies.
"I pay my bills wherever I am," Stevens said. "I don't let people buy my lunch or buy my dinner. Wherever I am, I pay my bills."
Stevens said he and his wife, Catherine, intended to treat the renovation project the same way. He said they relied on friends to oversee it and arranged a loan to pay for it. He described making it clear that he intended to pay for everything.
Justice Department prosecutors contend Stevens knew he was getting more work than he was paying for and intentionally concealed that on Senate financial disclosure forms.
Allen testified earlier in the trial that Stevens knew he wasn't being billed for all the work being done and that he wanted invoices only to protect himself.
"That's just an absolute lie," said Stevens, who sat impassively during that testimony. "I heard it. It's an absolute lie."
Stevens suggested that some details may have gotten lost amid the busy life of a senator: committee meetings, long hours and the challenges that come with representing a state four time zones away.
And he said the renovations were essentially his wife's project. When renovation bills arrived at his office, Stevens said, his staff members forwarded them to his wife.
"What goes on in the house is Catherine's business," Stevens testified. "What goes on outside is my business."
The trial has jeopardized one of the Senate's storied careers. An imposing figure in Alaska politics since before statehood, Stevens is now fighting to hold onto a Senate seat he has held for decades.