A combative Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska sparred with a top Justice Department attorney Friday, exhibiting from the witness stand at his corruption trial the pugnacity that long has been his trademark on Capitol Hill.
Grilled for 90 minutes by Brenda Morris in a pivotal moment in the case, Stevens ardently defended the way he handled disclosures of benefits he received from an oilman.
In the process, he derided some of the questions posed to him. He complained that the government was drawing unwarranted conclusions about his conduct.
And the long-serving Republican, a Harvard Law School graduate, offered some advice to Morris about how to frame her queries.
“I think you better rephrase your question,” he said acerbically at one point. “Your question is tautological.”
Stevens, 84, is charged with failing to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and gifts he allegedly received from Bill J. Allen, former owner of VECO Corp., an oil field services firm in Alaska.
Stevens contends that he and his wife paid for much of the home renovation but that Allen may have held back some bills from them. The senator and his wife have acknowledged that other items of value showed up at the home, located in a ski town known as Girdwood, southeast of Anchorage. But they say they never considered them gifts that required reporting under Senate rules.
The cross-examination, expected to conclude Monday, followed Stevens’ high-stakes decision to take the stand in his own defense.
How jurors react to Stevens could be key to the trial’s outcome. But legal experts said he had little choice but to have the jury hear him assert his innocence in his own voice.
Morris quizzed Stevens on why, if the flow of goods and services he received from Allen was unwanted, he did not try harder to stop it.
Stevens testified that it was the habit of his then-friend Allen to leave items of value that Stevens neither wanted nor requested, including a Viking gas grill and bronze artwork, at the home.
One year, he said, he asked Allen to have someone handle the installation of his Christmas lights. Allen responded by providing an elaborate display worth about $20,000.
“Well, sir, if you didn’t want all these items, why didn’t you just ask Bill Allen for your key back?” Morris asked. “You were the lion of the Senate, but you did not know how to stop a man from putting big-ticket items in your home?”
“You are making a lot of assumptions that are unwarranted,” Stevens responded. “There are no gifts there, at all, ma’am.”
Of Allen, Stevens said: “He was a good friend, and I trusted him. There were a few things I didn’t like.”
Stevens began his testimony Thursday. His lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., sought in his questioning to portray his client as an honest, bill-paying citizen who took special pains to comply with Senate rules.
“I don’t allow people to buy my lunch or buy my dinner,” Stevens testified. “Wherever I am, I pay my bills.”
Stevens described how he and his wife had liquidated a personal trust and taken out a mortgage to proceed with a long-planned overhaul of the Girdwood home in 2000. He testified that his wife oversaw the project and handled the finances.
Allen, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges last year in connection with payments he made to several Alaska state lawmakers, including Stevens’ son, testified for the government last week that expressions of concern by Stevens were an elaborate ruse. He also said the senator tried to create a paper trail to suggest that he had paid bills that he had not.
Stevens, in his testimony Friday, called those accusations “an absolute lie.”
The cross-examination by Morris, a veteran prosecutor, led Stevens to frequently complain that she was berating him with her questions.
“You’re not listening to me,” he told her.
As Morris pressed Stevens about the items he received from Allen, he asked, “If it was a gift, why did I ask for a bill?”
“To cover your butt,” Morris said.
“That wasn’t fair, ma’am,” Stevens replied.
Stevens’ wife, Catherine, testified Thursday that she had written thousands of dollars in checks for the home improvements, and that she had paid every bill she ever received from a general contractor overseeing the project.
But the government alleges that there were other costs, for materials and labor arranged through Allen, that were never billed nor paid for.
Stevens acknowledged that some of the materials used to renovate his home came from Allen. Among them: a steel set of stairs for a deck that Stevens said Allen got from a “junk pile” the businessman accumulated in building offshore drilling platforms.
“Why didn’t you report that you received this?” Morris asked.
“It was part of the project,” Stevens said.
“So long as you don’t ask for it, you don’t have to report it?” Morris queried.
“We were paying for the project,” Stevens said, “and Catherine paid all the bills.”