FOX News' Ian McCaleb was on hand Thursday for opening statements in the corruption trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
WASHINGTON — Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens stands accused of seven counts of false statements in an alleged "conspiracy" to cover up hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and services received from the Alaska-based oil services firm VECO from 1999 through 2006.
The jury of 12, with 4 alternates, was seated at 9:25 a.m., and was read a list of specific instructions by Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan. The instructions phase lasted some 30 minutes, and government prosecutor Brenda K. Morris launched into her opening remarks, which she ripped through in forceful, street-wise tones, finishing 30 minutes short of her allotted time.
Morris told the D.C.-based jury that this case is "simple," in that Senator Stevens is a "public official who took hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial benefits, and took away the people's right to know this information."
"He did these things so the free financial benefits he received wouldn't stop, and the public wouldn't have to know," Morris said.
Stevens is a "career politician," she said. "You don't survive in this town without being very smart, very deliberate, very forceful, and without knowing how to fly under the radar."
"He knows how to get things done without saying much," Morris added.
Continuing, she said Stevens "personally signed" his yearly Senate financial disclosure forms, and in doing so, "he decided to violate the law."
Stevens, she said, has had to fill those forms out every year for at least 30 years, and knows what they entail.
The bulk of the government's case focuses on the alleged "near-doubling" of the size of Stevens' Girdwood, Ark., residence, which was once a small A-frame ski chalet but following two rounds of extensive renovations is now much larger.
The government contends that Stevens did not pay $188,000 for the work done by VECO construction workers, though work on the home that had been subcontracted to a local construction company was paid by the senator and his wife, Catherine.
"The cost is always good when the price is free," Morris said of that allegedly unpaid $188,000. "He was obligated to disclose it. Instead, he chose not to."
"VECO spent thousands of [labor] hours on this project," Morris said. "There was no accident or accounting error here," she added. "The defendant was meticulous with his money."
Morris also pledged to look further at other items of value Stevens is accused of receiving, including:
• A $2700 massage chair that was shipped to his Washington, D.C., home
• A $6000 generator for the Girdwood chalet
• A $20,000 worth of decorative rope lighting at the chalet
• A champion bloodline Huskey puppy
• Several pieces of furniture
• A tool chest w/tools
• A Viking gas grill
• A stained glass window for the chalet
• A "sweetheart deal" where he traded a beat-up 1964 Mustang for a new Land Rover Discovery, valued at $44,000. The Land Rover was for his daughter, who had just gotten her license. Stevens threw in an extra $5000 with the Mustang, but the government contends the car was still worth many thousands less than the Land Rover.
"The single, simple issue of this case," Morris concluded, "is knowledge. What did the defendant know."
Lead Defense Attorney Brendan Sullivan, a soft-spoken man who has a reputation for viciousness when he is in the courtroom, chose a measured tact today that subtly focused on Stevens' wife Catherine and former VECO CEO and Stevens' friend, Bill Allen. Those two, intentionally or not, appear to be the source of the trouble here, Sullivan told the jury.
"He had no intent to violate the law," Sullivan said of Sen. Stevens. "He had no intent to conceal anything."
Catherine Stevens, Sullivan said, was in charge of the financing of the renovation, and made design recommendations that upped the cost. Stevens had arranged for a mortgage on the chalet to cover the construction costs, but that mortgage only amounted to some $100,000. All bills from the previously mentioned local construction contractor were paid, Sullivan asserted, save for the last one (amounting to $19,000), which VECO told the contractor to "eat."
"We have to look, somewhat uncomfortably, at the relationship between Stevens and Catherine, because it is at the heart of what happened here," Sullivan cryptically told the members of the jury. "Catherine was the one who decided what should be done."
In addition, Sullivan said, VECO never billed Stevens for the $188,000 additional, choosing instead to absorb that figure into its own books. Stevens, he said, could not pay what he did not know he owed. The money he did pay out of his mortgage looked, on the surface, to be sufficient to cover the costs of the job, Sullivan said
And, he said, Stevens could not possibly have been fully apprised of what was going on the with the renovation, because he lived in Washington.
"It is hard to do things so far away from the renovation site," he said. "There was no [formal] contract."
Bill Allen's intent, Sullivan said, will have to be looked at in-depth, because Stevens asked for bills several times, but never received any from VECO.
As for the other items of value, Sullivan claims Stevens did not want or was not interested in nor did he ask for the $2700 massage chair, the $20,000 worth of decorative rope lighting at the chalet, the furniture, the tool chest or the Viking gas grill, an item his wife reportedly feared would blow up the house.
Sullivan also said that the champion Huskey puppy's value was based on his own purchase of the dogs sibling, that he was unaware of the stained-glass window provided for the chalet and that the trade of the Mustang car for the new Land Rover was an "even deal."