Stevens’ Defense Has Political Downsides

Posted September 25, 2008 at 5:14pm

Sen. Ted Stevens’ attorney on Thursday offered a stirring defense of his client that he hopes will be enough to keep the Alaska Republican out of jail. But it also might help his political opponents kick him out of the Senate.

[IMGCAP(1)]Brendan Sullivan offered the jury a narrative that echoes some of the key themes Democrats are hammering in their effort to defeat the longtime incumbent in November: Stevens is a kindly old man who spends little time at his Alaska home and had no idea what his good friend — a powerful oil company executive — was doing up there, thousands of miles from the Senator’s real home in Washington, D.C.

After prosecutor Brenda Morris presented a biting description of the allegations against Stevens — that he is “a career politician” who knows how to “fly under the radar” and “had a scheme to conceal from the public the valuable things he received” — Sullivan offered a kinder, gentler picture of the octogenarian Senator, describing him as the innocent participant in a home renovation project that he believed he was paying for.

The government alleges that Bill Allen, president of the oil services company VECO and a longtime friend of Stevens’, provided more than $250,000 worth of renovations to Stevens’ house and other gifts, which Stevens failed to report as required on his annual financial disclosure forms.

Before he even began, Sullivan was emphasizing the soft focus on his story. He asked the judge for permission not to wear a microphone, so as not to be too loud for the jury. The judge said he had to wear the microphone so he could be heard in the overflow room and media room. When he began his opening statement, Sullivan apologized for the microphone, and told the jury that if he was too loud, they should let him know, and he would speak more quietly.

He then proceeded to tell the story in a soft, conversational tone, regularly referencing Stevens’ advanced age. Sullivan said the renovation on his house was intended to make room in the little house for Stevens’ 11 grandchildren. The Senator envisioned simply a big room with bunk beds stacked along the walls, Sullivan said, but his wife stepped in and wisely suggested that they would need to make bedrooms and bathrooms, which of course increased the costs.

Sullivan said the rolling toolbox full of tools that Allen is alleged to have given the Senator was not something Stevens wanted or needed. His last woodworking project was to make a stool for his 5-year-old daughter 20 years ago, a stool that Stevens still has, Sullivan said.

In Sullivan’s telling, the sled dog that Stevens accepted as a gift (he reported its worth at $250; the government alleges it was worth at least $1,000) was “the cutest little puppy you’ve ever seen,” and the value was based on the price Stevens paid for a second puppy to be its companion.

The gas-fired Viking grill that Allen installed in the house frightened Stevens’ wife because it was so large and powerful, Sullivan said. They agreed that it could stay at the house for use when there were “charity events” there, but they put a padlock on it “so you couldn’t turn it on.”

All of this, Sullivan said, was part of a renovation project being undertaken “by a married couple that lives 3,300 miles away.” While the house in Girdwood “is their technical residence,” Sullivan said, “they live with us here in Washington, D.C. … They are lucky to spend 20 days a year at that residence.”

Sullivan pointed out that when the renovations were going on at the house in 2000, Stevens was hardly ever there. He spent six days at the residence that year, Sullivan said, and 19 days the next year. The other time he spent in Alaska he was traveling and staying in hotels.

From that distance and with so little time there, Stevens was unable to oversee the renovations and had no way to know what other things Allen was doing to the house, Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s defense even had some echoes of the failed defense of Rep. James Traficant (Ohio), who is serving eight years in federal prison for his 2002 bribery conviction.

Traficant had argued in his defense that the things of value he had received were not really of much value. The work done on his boat by a contracting firm did not actually fix the boat’s leak, and in fact “they sunk my boat.” The repairs to his barn provided by another contractor were poorly done and “they almost knocked the barn down,” Traficant said at the time.

Sullivan argued that the furniture Allen placed in the Stevens’ Alaska chalet was too large for the room and in poor condition, with a cigarette burn on one of the arms. The metal staircase VECO’s contractors attached to the building was out of style with the wooden house and looked like it came from “an aircraft carrier,” Sullivan said. The expensive snow-melting system installed on the roof of the house was necessary because Allen’s contractors had built the roof incorrectly.

Throughout his presentation, Sullivan painted Stevens as a scrupulously honest man who paid every bill that was presented to him and took loans and cashed out savings accounts to pay for the renovations. He always wrote thank-you notes on his long plane rides back to Alaska, Sullivan said, including one to a contractor asking for a bill for work done on the house. “Friendship is one thing, compliance with the ethics rules entirely different,” Stevens wrote, according to Sullivan.

But he also described the Senator as an elderly absentee homeowner who was unaware of what was going on in Alaska, which is exactly how Stevens’ political opponents want to portray him.