WASHINGTON – A federal judge angrily rebuked the Justice Department on Monday for mishandling a witness against Sen. Ted Stevens, a dispute that delayed and initially threatened to derail the case against the Alaska senator.
The dustup didn't yield the mistrial or dismissal that the Republican senator was hoping for but, with Stevens running for re-election during his corruption trial, it reinforces his story line that he is the victim of overzealous prosecutors.
Stevens is charged with lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about more than $250,000 in free home renovations and other gifts he received from VECO Corp., a powerful Alaska oil pipeline contractor.
The witness dispute began this weekend when Robert Williams, the VECO employee who supervised the renovation project, called defense attorneys and said prosecutors had ignored important facts in the case.
Williams said the government's estimates for how much time he spent at the senator's house — and how much that time was worth — were overblown, according to court documents.
"That's just ..." defense attorney Robert Cary said in court Monday.
"Problematic," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said.
"It shocks us," Cary replied.
The value of the renovation is key because Stevens paid $160,000 and says he assumed it covered everything. Prosecutors say the job was so expensive, Stevens must have known his $160,000 wouldn't cover the tab.
Sullivan was livid that prosecutors sent Williams, who was under subpoena to testify in the case, back to Alaska without telling anyone. That raised suspicion among defense attorneys that prosecutors were trying to hide information that could help them.
Williams had been suffering from health problems and prosecutors said they decided they could bring the case without him.
Sullivan was not satisfied.
"Why wasn't I consulted? I'm peeved now. It's a federal subpoena to appear in my court," Sullivan said, his voice rising. "I think the government is treading in some shallow water here. What should the sanction be for that?"
Prosecutor Nicholas Marsh said the government was trying to consider Williams' medical problems, but he struggled to explain why prosecutors didn't tell anyone.
"Certainly looking back on it, we understand where the court's coming from," Marsh said.
Stevens, the longest-serving Senate Republican, is locked in a tight re-election race against Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. While Begich is campaigning, Stevens is tethered to a Washington courtroom.
Because defense attorneys have new information from Williams, Sullivan gave them a second chance to cross-examine a VECO bookkeeper whose documents suggested Williams worked long weeks on the senator's house.
Back on the stand, bookkeeper Cheryl Boomershine testified she didn't know what Williams was doing for those hours.
Stevens says that if anything was tacked on to the job, VECO founder Bill Allen did so without telling him. Because the senator's wife handles all his finances, Stevens says there's no way he could have known Allen was adding on work.
Prosecutors had planned to put Allen, their star witness, on the stand Monday. Instead, they listed more than a dozen potential witnesses, including VECO employees, former Stevens staffers and a former Federal Election Commission official.