The trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens suddenly lurched forward Tuesday after three straight in-court days characterized by torpid testimony about the specifics of the overhaul of Stevens' ski chalet in Girdwood, Alaska.
Bill Allen, the former CEO of one-time oil services powerhouse VECO took the stand at mid-afternoon, and by the time court was gaveled to a close in the late afternoon, Allen had begun telling the jury that Stevens hadn't paid for a number of the home upgrades that had been detailed for them by government witnesses earlier in the trial.
It could get much uglier for Stevens tomorrow, as the true high-cost portions of the renovation haven't come up yet.
Allen is the government's star witness in its case against the senator. VECO, his former firm, no longer exists after being implicated many times over in corruption schemes that have rocked the Alaska statehouse. Stevens is the largest target to be ensnared in the government's long-running investigation of VECO — he stands accused of seven counts of making false statements on his yearly Senate financial disclosure forms in a bid to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction work and gifts he is alleged to have received from the firm.
Allen is portrayed by both sides in this saga as Stevens' main benefactor. However, while the government prosecution team says Stevens readily accepted gift after gift from Allen, including the wholesale overhaul of his Girdwood ski "chalet," the Stevens defense counters that Stevens believed he had paid for the work done on the house. He believed all was on the up-and-up, the defense suggests, because Allen sent him bills to the tune of some $160,000, which he and his wife promptly paid.
However, the government says that the $160,000 was the money due to a construction subcontractor. The work done by VECO and its employees on the property amounted to another $188,000, for which Stevens was never billed, and never paid, the government says.
Stevens has also claimed his wife Catherine handled the finances for the construction work. His defense says he was ignorant of the costs Catherine was running up, adding that Allen was overzealous in his eagerness to work on the project, and didn't keep Sen. Stevens or his wife apprised of the costs.
The defense also argues that Allen has several good reasons to turn on Stevens, his longtime friend. Some of these would include the multiple corruption cases already tried by the government — Allen pleaded guilty to several charges in 2007, including bribery and extortion. The defense will most certainly argue that Allen is bucking for lenient treatment from the government in exchange for his cooperation against Stevens. There are also other outstanding, unsavory matters of a social nature related to Allen that will not be admissible in this trial.
Bill Allen's testimony today
For the first time, we are beginning to see the divide between the $160,000 and $188,000 figures, though those figures will have to pass Allen's lips at some point during his expected lengthy testimony before the jury can consider them as evidence. Read on for key evidence introduced Tuesday by the government that may make a more clear distinction between VECO's work, and that of the construction subcontractor that was brought in to do work VECO couldn't.
After a lengthy description of Allen's life and accomplishments — he is now 71 — and of a 2001 motorcycle accident in which he sustained a debilitating brain injury, Anchorage-based government prosecutor Joe Bottini asked Allen about the $6,000 generator that was installed by VECO workers at the Girdwood chalet. Asked if Stevens paid him for it, Allen replied, "No." Asked if Stevens had reimbursed VECO, Allen replied, "I don't know. I don't think so."
Among the raft of items Stevens is accused of omitting from his yearly financial disclosure forms was an oft-described 1999 vehicle exchange: a restored 1960's Mustang convertible for a new, 1999 Land Rover valued at $44,000. Stevens gave Allen the Mustang and a check for $5000, and shipped the car to Seattle to Allen's girlfriend Rita, in exchange for the Land Rover, which Stevens wanted for his daughter Lily.
In a letter to Allen, Stevens estimated the value of his portion of the exchange to be more than $32,000, leaving a gap of some $12,000 between the Mustang and the Land Rover. That $12,000 would have had to have been reported on the disclosure forms, by law.
Allen said on the stand he thought Stevens had overvalued the Mustang by as much as $10,000, but he went ahead with the trade anyway because, "I like Ted."
But in a new thread, it was disclosed today that Stevens approached Allen in 2007, saying he wanted the Mustang back, and would give Allen an armful of rifles and shotguns valued in the range of $5,000-$6,000 in exchange. Allen said he balked, telling Stevens he needed to wait until he was out of the Senate to make such a transaction.
The source of the rifles
The government's narrative was now flowing, because prior witness Jerie Jo Best testified Stevens had been given the firearms as a gift for his yearly participation in the Kenai River Classic, a sport-fishing event held every year to benefit the Kenai River, which is a habitat for several species of Salmon. The guns were each engraved with Stevens' name.
Stevens also came away with several other "gifts" from these yearly events, including the previously mentioned $29,000 fish statue, which Best said was purchased by a corporate consortium for Stevens. (It now resides on the front porch of the Girdwood residence, festooned with Christmas lights). The government says Stevens never claimed the statue on the forms. Nor did he claim the guns, nor did he claim the yearly gift bags he received. And, the government says, when reporting his acquisition of an Iditarod sled puppy from an Alaska fixture known as "Hobo Bob," Stevens pinned the value of the dog at $250.
The puppy, Best said, was purchased for Stevens at a Kenai Classic auction for $1,000.
$160k vs. $188k
Two key government witnesses took the stand earlier Tuesday, and unfurled a narrative that Stevens' defense team will have to counter when it's their turn to argue to the jury.
Heather Resz, a one-time Alaska newspaper reporter, testified she had received an anonymous tip in 2004 that VECO was renovating the Girdwood chalet. She approached Stevens' press secretary Courtney Boone, who also appeared today, seeking answers.
Boone balked when confronted with the information, Resz testified, saying Stevens was "an ethical man," and she'd have to get back to Resz. Boone responded two days later with a note that said Catherine Stevens, the senator's wife, had opened an account to pay for the renovations in 2001, and had paid a "general contractor" for the work.
There was no mention of VECO in Boone's response to Resz.
"I just threw my arms up and thought, 'another dead end,'" Resz said, describing her reaction to the note from Boone.
Stevens lawyers have already made clear that the senator and his wife paid $160,000 to a construction subcontractor for work on the house. They still want to know why he never paid VECO for the estimated additional $188,000 in work that was done on the property.
The "Rocky" Williams mystery
We also learned more earlier Tuesday about the causes of yesterday's flap over the so-called disappearance of key government witness Robert "Rocky" Williams, who was removed from Washington by the government prior to testifying — a move that prompted the defense to call for an immediate mistrial.
Williams was a sort of 'gofer' for Bill Allen who the government has portrayed as the foreman on the Girdwood work site. If that is indeed the case, his testimony might be invaluable to the government's cause, but the government sent him back to Alaska last week, after debriefing him over the two previous weeks here in DC. The defense was furious when it learned of what had happened with Williams, and Judge Emmet Sullivan was equally as angry. Sullivan threatened to sanction government lawyers if they didn't provide a plausible explanation.
Now we have seen the government's explanation, and it seems the action was based on Williams' rapidly deteriorating health. The government said in a court filing that it has done nothing wrong, and opted to send Williams back to the care of his regular doctors because he had lost "10 pounds," his belly was "distended," and he was "short of breath."
The defense argues, however, that Williams was spirited out of town because the story he told does not match the narrative the government planned to provide.
Government lawyer Nick Marsh told Judge Sullivan today that the Justice Department has made several attempts to contact Williams in the last 24 hours, but has not been successful.