WASHINGTON — Prosecutors stumbled Monday in their corruption case against Sen. Ted Stevens, drawing the ire of a federal judge for sending home to Alaska a potential witness who has figured prominently in other people's testimony but so far has not testified himself.
Lawyers for the 84-year-old Republican senator asked for a mistrial and accused prosecutors of failing to tell them everything they knew about a Veco Corp. worker named Robert "Rocky" Williams, who oversaw renovations at the Stevens home in Alaska 2001.
There's no basis for a mistrial, said U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, but said he was "flabbergasted" with how prosecutors had sent Williams home without alerting him or defense attorneys that he was no longer scheduled to be a witness. Sullivan scolded prosecutors from the bench -- but out of earshot or view of the jury.
"I find it very, very disturbing that this has happened, and concerned about the appearance of propriety, or impropriety," Sullivan said, stopping short of accusing government prosecutors of misconduct or a lapse in ethics but threatening sanctions.
"After all, this is the search for the truth and people ought not to forget about that," said Sullivan, who asked lawyers to give him briefs outlining what had happened. "This is a serious one, we're all officers of the court."
However, the jury heard none of the dispute, meaning that it may not have a bearing on the outcome of the trial.
Stevens faces seven felony counts of failing to report on his Senate disclosure forms more than $250,000 worth of gifts and home renovations, chiefly from Veco and its chief executive officer, Bill Allen. Stevens, who is up for re-election Nov. 4, asked for a speedy trial so he'd have the opportunity to clear his name before Election Day.
Williams, who worked for Allen, was originally set to be a government witness, but prosecutors decided in the opening days of the trial not to use him. It remains unclear why they no longer want him to testify, although he spent extensive time in Washington with Justice Department lawyers in preparation for the trial. Lawyers from both sides discussed the issue with the judge privately but did not elaborate in open court. Prosecutors did allude to Williams being "two weeks overdue" for something in Alaska, and in court filings, Stevens' attorneys refer to health issues that include "coughing episodes."
Williams got in touch with Stevens' attorneys -- at the direction of prosecutors -- after they released him as a witness and sent him home to Alaska. The conversation Stevens' lawyers had over the weekend with Williams "casts the government's decision to send him home -- on the eve of Bill Allen's testimony -- in a very different light," Stevens' lawyers wrote in their filings.
Stevens' lawyers say there's evidence Williams worked far less on the home than other company employees have suggested in their testimony, including one of the company's bookkeepers who took the stand Friday.
Such evidence could help Stevens knock holes in the government's theory that the Veco work done on his home was so extensive that he must have known he was getting benefits above and beyond the $160,000 his lawyers said he paid a separate contractor for the work done to double his home in size.
"We got lucky," said one of Stevens' lawyers, Robert Cary. "We got lucky that he changed his prior position of not wanting to talk to us."
In court filings, Cary said that "Mr. Williams informed defense counsel that he spent nowhere near 8 hours per day, 6-7 days per week, on the Girdwood home renovation project -- in direct contrast to the timesheets that the government has placed in evidence to support its central theory that the unpaid cost of the project to Veco was $188,000."
No one answered the door or the phone at Williams' trailer Monday morning in south Anchorage. A pair of pickups sat parked in the driveway, and what sounded like a television could be heard playing from behind the door.
Judge Sullivan offered Stevens' lawyers a chance to re-question Cheryl Boomershine, the Veco bookkeeper who testified Friday about how much money the company spent renovating the home in Girdwood. Boomershine was still in Washington on Monday morning and available to come to court.
When Boomershine took the stand Monday, Cary walked her through the timecards Williams had filed in connection with the project, trying to establish that all the time and money he spent on the Girdwood project may not have been 100 percent devoted to overseeing renovations at the Stevens home.
"You don't know whether Mr. Williams spent time working on other projects for Mr. Allen that had nothing to do with Girdwood?" Cary asked.
"No," Boomershine said.
Prosecutors continued to build their case by bringing to the stand a series of tradesmen who worked on Stevens' home.
A carpenter who was paid by Veco to build a deck testified he was told to be discreet about the project when Allen hired him in 2002.
"He said a certain amount of discretion would need to be used because it was the senator's house," and the company was actually an oil services firm, not a general contractor, testified Brian Byrne, who oversaw the deck construction.
Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News contributed to this report.