WASHINGTON – Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is an honorable, trusting man who was taken advantage of by a corrupt friend who provided expensive gifts, not the architect of a "master cover-up by a sinister senator," as portrayed by prosecutors at his corruption trial, his lawyer argued Tuesday.
The Justice Department is trying to twist skimpy evidence to make it seem that Stevens is a "mastermind of a conspiracy," instead of a respected World War II veteran whose Senate work kept him so busy he trusted others to renovate his remote Alaska cabin, famed defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan said.
"We're trying to convict an innocent man in this courtroom on an interpretation of evidence so far from real life it should make you sick," he told jurors.
The 84-year-old Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican senator, is charged with lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts he received from his friend, millionaire Bill Allen, who runs oil services company VECO Corp.
Stevens testified for three days and said he never asked for the rope lighting, furniture, gas grill, fully stocked tool chest or other items that kept appearing at his house.
He said he repeatedly pressed Allen to remove the unwanted items, and asked him frequently for bills for the renovation work that changed the modest A-frame cabin into a two-story home with wraparound decks, new electricity and plumbing, a sauna and a master-bedroom balcony.
"He's a very simple guy," Sullivan said. "He asked for no gifts, and he's got some guy foisting things" on him.
Prosecutors ridiculed Stevens' explanation as "nonsense" in their closing statements.
Prosecutor Joseph Bottini told jurors that Stevens surrounded himself with wealthy, generous friends who could be counted on to give gifts and who could be trusted to keep it quiet.
"Does anybody really believe that the defendant really can't get Bill Allen to stop giving him all this free stuff?" Bottini asked.
Bottini repeatedly questioned Stevens' credibility and remarked that he looked uncomfortable answering questions on the witness stand.
In particular, Bottini seized on an awkward exchange that occurred Monday, when Stevens said an expensive massage chair was a loan, not a gift, from another friend.
"Does anyone really believe he thought that chair was a loan? It's been in his house for seven years," Bottini said. "What were the terms of this loan? Zero percent interest for 84 months? Simply saying, 'We're going to call this a loan and I don't have to report it,' is nonsense."
But Sullivan accused the Justice Department of twisting the case to make an honorable senator appear corrupt. When prosecutors "look at life through a dirty glass," he said, "then the whole world looks dirty."
To believe the government, you'd have to believe in "a master cover-up by a sinister senator," Sullivan said. Instead, Stevens and his wife paid $160,000 for the remodeling, and Sullivan told jurors that more than covered the cost of the project.
He told jurors to focus on the many letters and e-mails in which Stevens asks to be billed for his home renovations. Stevens says he assumed the bills were sent and that his wife paid them. Prosecutors say Stevens wrote the letters to cover himself.
To believe that, Sullivan told jurors, "You've got to think he's some mastermind of a conspiracy, who writes something so it'll protect himself seven, eight years later."
"That's sick," Sullivan said. "That's sick thoughts. That's not real life."
Sullivan also attacked Allen, the government's star witness, calling him a "bum." He told jurors that Allen — who has pleaded guilty to bribing state legislators — is offering substantial help to prosecutors in hopes of keeping his children from being prosecuted.
"What would a man say on a witness stand to protect his children?" Sullivan said.
Also, Allen is trying to protect his financial interests and maybe reduce his jail time by maybe helping "the government get a senator convicted. That would be substantial." Sullivan said.
Stevens asked for an unusually speedy trial that he hopes will clear his name before Election Day. He is fending off a tough Democratic challenge for a seat he's held for 40 years.
Democrats have invested heavily in the campaign, sensing an opportunity to unseat a legendary Republican figure and perhaps capture a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
The monthlong trial has been a distraction for Stevens during the crucial final weeks of the campaign. His opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, has had the state all to himself while Stevens has been tethered to the Washington courtroom.
"If the trial comes to a conclusion and, as he believes, that he is found innocent, I think that he will win that election up there," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tuesday. "If it goes the other way, obviously it really won't matter what happens in the election."