The corruption trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens began Thursday with sharply divergent portraits of the long-serving Republican.
In opening statements in the highly anticipated case, prosecutors accused Stevens of using his experience in the ways of Washington to “fly under the radar screen” and flout Senate rules requiring the disclosure of gifts and favors.
“This is a simple case about a public official who took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free financial benefits, and then took away the public right to know that information,” Brenda Morris, the lead Justice Department attorney on the case, told jurors.
But a lawyer for Stevens described a lawmaker who was so focused on his duties that he paid scant attention to financial matters and often deferred to his wife and others. The so-called gifts he got were often unwanted and gratuitous, and if they were never disclosed, it was only because he considered them a nuisance or worthless, the lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., argued.
“Why all of a sudden, in his 75th year, did he decide to go out and become a criminal?” Sullivan asked. “The evidence will show that he did not file false statements.”
Sullivan said the evidence would also include character testimony from Stevens’ Senate colleagues.
He listed several who might be called as witnesses, including Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
Stevens, who was seated among a battery of lawyers at the counsel table in court, is accused of knowingly and repeatedly filing financial reports with the Senate between 2000 and 2006 that understated or omitted gifts or other benefits that he got from an oil executive and others.
Among the unreported benefits: an overhaul on his residence in Girdwood, Alaska; freebies including a sled dog and a $2,700 massage chair; and a sweetheart deal on a $44,000 Land Rover.
The government contends that Stevens never paid for more than $200,000 in labor and materials for the remodel supplied by a now-defunct oil field services firm, VECO Corp. VECO’s former chief executive, Bill J. Allen, allegedly showered Stevens with other perks.
“VECO acted as his own personal handyman service,” Morris said. “If the defendant needed an electrician, he would contact VECO. If he needed a plumber, he would contact VECO.”
“We reach for the Yellow Pages,” Morris told the jury. “He reached for VECO.”
Sullivan, Stevens’ lawyer, countered that the lawmaker and his wife paid every invoice they received for work on the house, and that the total amount they paid was in line with the current assessed value of the property.
While acknowledging that some bills may have gone unpaid, he offered two explanations that seemed intended to distance Stevens from the transaction, and raised the possibility that Stevens’ wife, Catherine, may have known more than her husband about the situation.
“The most important thing to know is that Catherine ran the financial part of the renovation,” Sullivan said. “She was the person who opened the account. She was the person who viewed the bills. She was the person who wrote the check.”
Sullivan also said that Allen, who oversaw the work and billed the Stevenses, withheld bills, not necessarily out of an attempt to enrich Stevens, but possibly because the bills were excessive or for work that was not done properly.
“You cannot report what you don’t know,” Sullivan said. “You can’t fill out a form and say what’s been kept from you by the deviousness of someone like Bill Allen.”
Stevens paid $160,000 for the renovation, “which is exactly or close to what it should have been,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also attempted to explain away other items his client received, including a Viking gas grill, $20,000 in decorative lighting outside the Girdwood chalet, and the Land Rover, which Stevens got for his daughter in exchange for his 34-year-old Mustang and $5,000.
Sullivan said the gas grill arrived at the house for a charity function, was rarely used afterward, and was kept under padlock because it struck Stevens’ wife as dangerous. “Catherine was frightened to death of it,” Sullivan said. “She thought it would blow up the house, blow up the grandchildren.”
When the senator asked Allen to put up his Christmas lights, Sullivan said, Stevens came home to find an elaborate and gaudy new lighting system set up.
“Catherine hated the lights. It made the house look like Joe’s Bar & Grill,” Sullivan said.
“I suppose Ted Stevens, the senator, should go home and get some climbing shoes on, go up and take them down, and send them back to Bill Allen?” Sullivan asked.
Sullivan also said the Mustang-Land Rover swap “was absolutely fair.”
“You don’t have to report a trade that you believe is fair,” and Stevens “certainly had no intent to violate the law,” Sullivan said.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan is expected to last a month. Stevens asked for a speedy trial in the hope that the proceedings would be completed by the time Alaskans vote Nov. 4 on whether to return him to the Senate for the seventh time.