Sen. Ted Stevens Trial Comes to Head Over “Gifts”

Prosecutor needles, Senator bristles

WASHINGTON –– Jurors were offered conflicting views of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens during a four-week corruption trial: a cantankerous but credible senator who didn't know he was being lavished with free gifts, or a sour-faced, scheming one who thought he knew how to quietly get undisclosed freebies.

Stevens completed three days of testimony Monday with lawyers still trying to convince jurors of their portrait of the longtime Republican lawmaker, who has been charged with lying on financial disclosure forms about $250,000 in renovations and other gifts he received from oil services contractor VECO Corp.

Closing arguments were scheduled for Tuesday and jurors were to begin deliberating Wednesday.

Stevens has said he never sought gifts and wouldn't even accept a free lunch, much less the expensive remodeling services that changed his A-frame Girdwood, Alaska cabin into a large, modern home with a sauna, wine cellar and wraparound porches. He and his wife Catherine paid for everything they knew of, Stevens insisted.

"Catherine paid for the work that was done at our house, she paid the bills and that's all there is to it," said Stevens, the last words he left the jury with before leaving the stand.

But prosecutors say he had a history of accepting gifts — including an expensive massage chair in his Washington, D.C. home — and omitting them from the financial disclosure forms. Stevens has insisted repeatedly that the chair was a loan from a friend, although it has been in his house for seven years.

"How is that not a gift?" prosecutor Brenda Morris asked.

"He bought that chair as a gift, but I refused it as a gift," Stevens said. "He put it there and said it was my chair. I told him I would not accept it as a gift. We have lots of things in our house that don't belong to us."

Playing to the jury, Morris appeared confused. "So, if you say it's not a gift, it's not a gift?" she said.

"I refused it as a gift," Stevens replied. "I let him put it in our basement at his request."

Once an untouchable political force, Stevens faces a tough re-election fight and he's hoping for an acquittal before Election Day. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, has sought to capitalize on Stevens' legal woes in the tight race.

Morris grilled Stevens repeatedly about things VECO founder Bill Allen added to the senator's Girdwood residence, including a new porch, a balcony, a fully stocked tool chest, a gas grill, a steel staircase, rope lighting, a generator and leather furniture.

Stevens has said he didn't ask for those things, and even tried to get Allen to take them away. Stevens added Monday that Allen, who has pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers, "stole" the furniture out of his cabin and replaced it with the leather furniture.

"Why didn't you call the police when Bill Allen stole your furniture?" Morris quickly asked.

"It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time. I might now," Stevens said.

The gifts and the Girdwood renovations are at the heart of Stevens' corruption trial. The Alaska Republican appeared as his own star witness, trying to convince jurors that he paid every bill he received for his 2000 home renovation project and didn't know he was getting any freebies from the oil services corporation.

Stevens said he saw a clear difference between getting help from Allen and getting help from VECO. "One's a human, one's a corporation, ma'am," he said.

"You're saying you don't have to disclose gifts from a human?" Morris replied. Stevens replied again that he didn't get any gifts.
Though gruff, Stevens kept his temper in check despite needling from Morris. Through back-and-forth jousting with Morris, the senator did confirm for jurors the combative and cantankerous reputation of a man known in the Senate for his "Incredible Hulk" neckties.

"Now, you go right ahead with your questions, miss," Stevens shot at Morris once.

And when Morris asked him why an expensive fish statue Stevens has said is intended for his memorial foundation is sitting on his front porch, Stevens replied icily: "Ms. Morris, I have not died yet."

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