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Friend says Stevens sought bills as ruse

Letters citing Senate rules were written to mask his illegal receipt of gifts and services, a key witness testifies.

October 02, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Writing to an old friend in October 2002, Sen. Ted Stevens offered effusive praise -- and a caveat -- for work the friend was overseeing on Stevens' home in Alaska.

"Thanks for the work on the chalet," Stevens wrote to the friend, oilman Bill J. Allen. "You owe me a bill -- remember Torricelli, my friend. Friendship is one thing. Compliance with the ethics rules entirely different."

Stevens even ordered Allen to consult with a mutual friend about how to resolve the issue. "Don't get p.o.'d at him," he wrote, adding that it "just has to be done right."

On its face, the note appears to buttress the position of Stevens and his lawyers that the long-serving Alaska Republican took seriously Senate disclosure rules about the receipt of gifts and did not violate federal law. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) left office after an investigation into allegedly illegal campaign contributions.

But the government has a sharply different view. Allen, its star witness, testified Wednesday that the letters were part of an elaborate ruse constructed to mask the fact that Stevens was knowingly and illegally getting gifts and improvements worth more than $250,000 free from Allen and others.

Allen recounted how, at Stevens' suggestion, he discussed the billing issue with their friend, restaurant owner Robert Persons, who was also involved in the renovation, and that Persons told him to ignore it.

"Bill, don't worry about getting a bill," Allen said Persons told him. "Ted's just covering his. . . . "

"Did you send Sen. Stevens a bill or invoice after receiving this?" prosecutor Joseph W. Bottini asked Wednesday. Allen replied that he had not.

Allen's credibility is crucial to the prosecution, which is expected to wrap up its case against Stevens by Friday.

He testified Wednesday that Stevens had mentioned the bill to him on another occasion, about a month after the first note, in which Stevens had commented on an elaborate outside lighting display that Allen had installed for the lawmaker. The government says that the lights cost about $20,000 and that Stevens never reported them.

"The Christmas lights top it all," Stevens enthused. "(Don't forget we need a bill for what's been done out at the chalet.)"

Allen testified that he still did not send a bill, citing the advice he had received from Persons. "I really didn't want to," he testified, "because I wanted to help Ted."

The home improvements transformed the small A-frame cabin in the resort town of Girdwood, southeast of Anchorage, into a two-story home with wraparound porches and other amenities.

Allen also testified that he and three other men purchased a bronze statue for Stevens at a charity auction and, with the help of Stevens' son, hauled the piece to the chalet and placed it on the front porch. The government says the bronze depiction of migrating salmon was worth about $30,000.

Allen said the gift was intended for a library "or some kind of building for Ted," to commemorate his years of public service. Such a facility has not yet been constructed.

Stevens' lawyers have argued that he paid scant attention to the specifics of the renovation and that his wife, Catherine, was the driving force behind the project. Stevens said he and his wife paid $160,000 for the renovations, which they assumed covered everything.

Allen pleaded guilty last year to federal bribery and extortion charges in connection with payments he made to Alaska lawmakers, including Stevens' son, a former president of the state Senate.

He has been cooperating in the federal investigation ever since he was confronted by federal agents in August 2007 and has permitted agents to wiretap phone conversations he had with Stevens' friends. Some of those conversations are expected to be played in court today.

Allen, who has not been sentenced for his crimes, faces up to 11 years in prison. Prosecutors have agreed to consider seeking a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony in the case against Stevens and other lawmakers. Allen said Wednesday that he was skeptical that he would receive a reduced sentence.

--

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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