Sen. Ted Stevens was clueless about the cost and scope of a pricey makeover of his Alaska cabin that led to federal corruption charges and threatened his career, his lawyer said Thursday at the opening of his trial.
Federal prosecutors allege Stevens – one of Congress' most powerful Republicans and a patriarch of Alaska politics for generations – lied on Senate forms about more than $250,000 in renovations and gifts from a wealthy oil contractor and close friend, Bill Allen, who expected political favors in return.
But defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, in the first public defense of the 84-year-old senator, shifted blame to Allen and responsibility to Stevens' wife, Catherine.
“You cannot report what you don't know,” Sullivan said. “You can't fill out a form and say what's been kept from you by the deviousness of someone like Bill Allen.”
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Sullivan said the senator's wife handled all the project's finances and was the driving force behind the renovations. When Stevens had a message for her, he communicated through his Senate staffers.
“They have a saying in their house that when it comes to things in and out of the teepee, the wife controls,” Sullivan said.
A longtime Senate powerhouse, Stevens is famous for steering billions of dollars to his home state. But the case has turned him into such a political liability that the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has refused to endorse him in his unusually tight re-election race.
“Ted Stevens' trial started a couple of days ago,” Palin said Thursday. “We'll see where that goes.”
The Senate's longest-serving Republican sat grim-faced at the defense table in a packed courtroom as prosecutor Brenda Morris dismissed the theory that he was oblivious to what went on around him.
“You do not survive politics in this town for that long without being very, very smart, very, very deliberate, very forceful and, at the same time, knowing how to fly under the radar,” Morris said in her opening statement.
At the heart of the case is a complicated 2000 remodeling project in which Stevens' small chalet in the woods outside Anchorage was jacked up on stilts and a new first-floor was built. Rather than hiring a home contractor, Stevens relied on Allen, the chairman of oil services firm VECO Corp., to manage the project, hire the carpenters and review the bills.
Prosecutors say Stevens never paid Allen or VECO employees for their services, part of a long pattern of freebies he is accused of concealing. Allen gave Stevens a gas grill, a generator, an elaborate rope lighting system and a sweetheart deal on a car.
“We reach for the yellow pages, he reached for VECO,” Morris said, “and the defendant never paid a dime.”
Sullivan countered that Stevens' wife promptly paid every bill received – $160,00 in all – for the home project that was to make room for visits by his 11 grandchildren. He described Allen regularly going overboard with his giving, and at one point pressuring a local contractor to “eat” a $19,000 bill rather than send it to Stevens.