Sen. Ted Stevens took the witness stand in his own defense on Thursday, asserting that he had never engaged in any scheme to file false disclosure forms in the Senate.
In taking the calculated risk of testifying at his corruption trial, Stevens, a Republican, made what should be a fateful decision to tell his story before two distinct audiences — the jury hearing the case and the Alaska electorate that will decide on Nov. 4 whether to return him to the Senate, where he has represented the state for 40 years.
Stevens, 84, is charged in seven felony counts with knowingly failing to list on Senate disclosure forms some $250,000 in gifts and services in connection with the renovation of his Alaska home.
Ending days of suspense in the courtroom about whether he would testify, he was called to the stand late in the afternoon by his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan.
“When you signed these forms did you believe they were accurate and truthful?” Sullivan asked. “Yes sir,” Stevens replied.
“Did you ever intend to file false statements?” His response: “No, I did not.”
Stevens’ brief declarations of innocence came at the end of two days in which defense witnesses including his wife, Catherine Stevens, were subjected to strong cross-examinations by Justice Department prosecutors, For the rest of his 20 minutes on the stand before court recessed for the day, Stevens recounted some of his personal and political history in Alaska.
It was what Sullivan said was a “warmup” for a full bout of testimony on Friday morning by Stevens before what is expected to be a critical cross-examination.
The heart of the case is whether Stevens knew that his longtime friend, Bill Allen, an oil services tycoon, used his company, Veco, to rebuild a small A-frame home in Girdwood, Alaska. Beginning in 1999, the Stevens home underwent a complete makeover; it was jacked up, a new floor was built underneath, decks were added on two floors and various appliances and gifts were added including an expensive gas grill and a stained glass panel.
Allen, a rough-hewn entrepreneur who made a fortune in Alaska’s North Slope oilfields, testified for the prosecution earlier this month that Stevens fully understood that he was getting the goods and services for free.
Stevens’ defense has been that that he and his wife paid about $130,000 to some contractors, which they believed covered the cost of the renovation. Although the Stevenses never paid Allen or Veco any money, defense lawyers argued that Allen had done lots of things on his own and never sent Stevens any bills.
Defense lawyers asserted that Allen, who had once been close friends with Stevens, had turned on him, to win favor with the government. He needed the government’s agreement to sell his company for some $380 million and is also facing sentencing for his conviction in Alaska for a scheme to bribe state lawmakers.
The defense posture was put to the test for most of Thursday with Stevens’ wife, Catherine, on the stand. She is a well-known Washington lawyer and is, in her own right, known as a formidable figure. Under questioning by Robert Cary, a Stevens lawyer, she was self-assured and straightforward.