Reporter's Notebook: Powell Takes the Stand for Stevens

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Another high-profile character witness was presented by the Ted Stevens defense team at the Alaska senator's trial in Washington Friday.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell sat in the witness chair for some 15 minutes, and told the jury of his view that Stevens is a paragon of integrity.

"As we infantryman would say," Powell said in reference to his Army days, "This is a guy you would take on a long patrol."

Much of the day's trial proceedings were characterized by the defense's strategy to take the government's indictment of Stevens apart piece by piece. Stevens has been charged with seven counts of making false statements on his annual Senate financial disclosure forms.

The government has alleged that Stevens didn't claim a variety of gifts and services he received from the former Alaska-based oil services firm VECO, and its one-time CEO Bill Allen, including a top-to-bottom renovation of his Girdwood, Alaska, ski "chalet" that the prosecution has valued at $188,000.

The defense paraded several witnesses to the stand Friday who said they worked on the renovation project, and were paid by Stevens and his wife Catherine. Among these were several local contractors. The government attempted to dull the effect of their testimony by asking each if they worked on site with any VECO employees. Many responded that they had.

But Powell brought a little bit of star power to the defense's efforts, when he strode confidently to the witness chair just after the afternoon lunch break had come to an end.

Powell described work he had done with Stevens over the years, including working with him on yearly defense appropriations. Stevens was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time, and Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States.

He said he had known Stevens "extraordinarily well" for some 25 years or more. Powell said of Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate: "He fights for his state, he fights for his people, but he always has the best interests of the country at heart."

Asked by lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan of Stevens' reputation for "integrity and truthfulness" in the wider Washington community, Powell responded, "In a word, sterling."

"I have never heard any suggestion that (Sen. Stevens) would do anything improper," Powell said.

Lead prosecuting attorney Brenda Morris cross-examined Powell by asking only two questions. She first asked if he had ever been to Stevens' house in Girdwood, and Powell replied that he hadn't. Morris then asked what Powell knew about this case other than what he had seen in the media, and again, Powell answered in the negative, saying he had seen nothing aside from media reports.

At the conclusion of his testimony, Powell told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Washington that he was glad to have testified for Stevens, but refused further comment.

The trial continued Friday afternoon with more details of billing and construction. Proceedings will restart next Tuesday, following the federal holiday, when more character witnesses — including Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., may be called to the stand.

Kennedy's appearance will be contingent on his health.