Senators, Staff on Witness List

Posted September 22, 2008 at 6:56pm

Among the dozens of names unveiled Monday as potential witnesses in the trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) are former Senate staff, business partners and neighbors, as well as four of his Senate colleagues.

Judge Emmet Sullivan revealed the list of possible witnesses — including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to prospective jurors as part of the first stage of jury selection in the case.

Stevens is charged with seven counts of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over an eight-year period. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

Although Sullivan did not distinguish between witnesses for Stevens’ defense and those who may be called by federal prosecutors — reading the names only in alphabetical order — legal observers unaffiliated with the case expect the Senators would be called to speak on the Alaskan’s behalf.

“More generally in criminal cases, many times a defense will call what’s known as ‘character witnesses,’” explained Stan Brand, a noted white-collar defense attorney who once served as House general counsel.

Providing a bipartisan display of support “may sway somebody on the jury to think better of him,” Brand said.

While the Senators could be asked to testify about Stevens’ “knowledge, good standing and character,” he added, the lawmakers would unlikely discuss the appropriations process or how the chamber functions.

“You would have to qualify the Senators as experts to have them talk about appropriations process,” Brand said. “I don’t envision the defense … being able to question these Senators about practices and procedures generally. I think the government will object to that and may well get the judge to agree with them.”

In addition to the Senators, the extensive witness list includes Stevens and his wife, Catherine, as well as former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Alaska lawmaker appeared in the courtroom Monday, the first time since his July arraignment, but he did not address the court or speak with reporters. Stevens has filed a motion seeking to waive his appearance in court “from time to time as may be required to fulfill his Senate duties.”

Opening arguments in the trial could begin as early as Wednesday, and Sullivan said the trial is expected to last approximately four weeks.

In the meantime, Stevens and government prosecutors continued to clash over proposed instructions to jurors on how to interpret the seven-count indictment.

Sullivan rejected a motion from Stevens in pretrial proceedings to delete a portion of the indictment that asserted employees of the now-defunct VECO Corp. oil services firm — the company that purportedly supplied Stevens with gifts, including major renovations to his Girdwood, Alaska, home — had sought assistance from the Senator and his staff during the same period he allegedly received gifts.

Subsequently, Stevens’ attorneys proposed for Sullivan to instruct the jury that the Alaskan did not act inappropriately in receiving requests from VECO or its employees.

“I instruct you that Senator Stevens and his staff did not take any of these official actions or receive any of these requests for an improper purpose. All of them were entirely lawful and proper,” the Stevens proposal states in part.

Government attorneys objected to that language Monday, however, criticizing it as “nothing more than legal argument.”

Prosecutors proposed an alternative instruction, which would state: “The defendant is not charged with a crime for performing any particular official act. … Evidence of any official action by the defendant or requests for such action by the defendant or his office should be considered by you only to determine the defendant’s motive and intent to commit the crimes charged in the Indictment.”