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Stevens takes the stand at corruption trial

It's risky but perhaps necessary, experts say. His wife also testifies.

October 17, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) took the witness stand at his corruption trial Thursday, declaring his innocence in a high-stakes personal appeal to rebut charges that he violated Senate financial disclosure rules.

With his case set to go to a federal jury early next week, Stevens launched the first of two days of testimony expected to conclude today.

Stevens, known as "Uncle Ted" to his constituents for his ability to corral billions in federal dollars for his home state, is accused of failing to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and gifts he received from an Alaskan oilman, Bill J. Allen.

"Senator, when you signed those Senate financial disclosure forms . . . did you believe they were accurate and truthful?" Stevens' lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, asked at the outset of his direct examination of his client.

"Yes, sir," Stevens replied.

"Did you ever intend to file false statements with the United States Senate, where you have served for 40 years?" Sullivan asked.

Stevens said he did not.

The defense's decision to allow the senator to testify was seen by legal experts as a gamble, since it cleared the way for prosecutors to question him in open court and use evidence that otherwise would be barred by hearsay rules.

Defense lawyers often think twice about calling as witnesses clients who are in a position of power, fearing they are prone to lose their cool and would then hurt their cause. But with the senator's fate turning on what he believed and intended, experts said, the move appeared to be an attempt to address jurors' concerns.

"The jury naturally feels, 'If he didn't mean to do anything wrong, why doesn't he tell us about it?' " said Randall Eliason, a former federal corruption prosecutor. "It is a high-risk tactic to put your client on the stand, but in cases like this it may be very important."

Earlier Thursday, Catherine A. Stevens, the senator's wife, testified that she had written checks, totaling about $160,000, to pay for renovations at their A-frame home in Girdwood, a resort town southeast of Anchorage. Prosecutors contend that much of the work on the project was done for free.

She acknowledged that some of the work had been done by employees of VECO Corp., the now-defunct oil-field services firm that Allen headed, but she said she believed their time was included in the bills she received from her general contractor.

Catherine Stevens, a Washington lawyer, testified that she took charge of the project as she was moving to a new job in 2000.

Her husband, she said, had wanted a more Spartan upgrade, but she deemed that unsuitable for a growing family with adult children and grandchildren. The renovations included raising the house on stilts to create a second story.

She also testified that she was unhappy about some aspects of the project, including such amenities as a Viking outdoor gas grill. Prosectors say the grill was among the gifts from Allen that her husband failed to properly disclose.

"I did not want any kind of gas anything available to anyone that might be around the children," she testified. "It was very dangerous. It was a fire hazard, and I didn't want it on my deck."

On cross-examination, Justice Department lawyer Brenda Morris established that despite her concerns, Catherine Stevens never did anything to return the grill or remove other items that she disliked.

Under Morris' questioning, she acknowledged that a Brookstone massage chair lent by another friend to the couple in 2001 was still in their Washington home.

"What kind of loan is that?" Morris asked.

"He is a friend, an Alaskan that left this stupid chair there," Catherine Stevens replied. "I'm not happy about it."

Later, in reference to several pieces of furniture that Allen had shipped to the Girdwood home, Morris said: "Ma'am, you make close to a half million dollars a year. Why can't you get that out of there?" Catherine Stevens replied that it was Allen's responsibility to remove the items. But she said she did arrange to return one gift -- an Iditarod sled-dog puppy won for her husband at a charity fundraiser.

She was unable to explain whether she paid for a wraparound deck on the first floor of the chalet that was installed more than a year after the renovations were completed in 2001. She testified that after she saw the completed deck, she checked to see whether she had ever been billed for it. "I don't know that a bill came in," she said.

Her husband, questioned by Sullivan, traced his history as a child of the Depression in Indiana, living with his grandparents after his parents' divorce and later moving to Southern California, where he graduated from high school in Redondo Beach. After serving as a pilot in World War II, Stevens said, he worked as a lifeguard to help pay his way through UCLA.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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