WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens took the stand in his own defense late Thursday afternoon, asserting in a rapid-fire exchange with his lawyer that he'd done no wrong.
"Senator, when you signed those forms, did you believe they were accurate and truthful?" his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, asked about Stevens' Senate financial-disclosure forms.
"Yes, sir," Stevens said.
"Did you ever intentionally file false disclosure forms?" his lawyer asked.
"No, I did not," Stevens said.
"Did you ever engage in any scheme to conceal anything from the Senate?" Sullivan asked.
"No, sir," Stevens said.
The 84-year-old Alaska Republican has been charged with failing to report more than $250,000 in alleged gifts and services, largely from the oil field-service company Veco and its chief executive, Bill Allen, Stevens' former friend. Most of the alleged gifts are connected to renovations that doubled the size of the Stevenses' home in Girdwood, Alaska, in 2000 and 2001.
Stevens' testimony, which ended after 20 minutes when court broke for the day, will continue Friday. Jurors are expected to get the case early next week.
After the assertion of Stevens' innocence, the senator's lawyer switched to a gentler line of inquiry: a 20-minute autobiography that began with Stevens' humble Depression-era origins in Indiana, outlined his World War II service, then detailed the death of his first wife, Ann, in a plane crash in 1978. From the stand, Stevens acknowledge the only other survivor of the crash besides himself, Tony Motley, a longtime political adviser to Stevens and other Alaska Republicans who was a spectator in the courtroom Thursday.
Stevens isn't required to take the stand, and jurors couldn't have held it against him if he'd decided not to testify, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan advised him before he began his testimony. Stevens, who's been a senator since 1968, faces not just the jurors in Washington, however, but also the first competitive race of his Senate career back in Alaska. He's remained in a courtroom for the past four weeks while the Democratic mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, has been campaigning to replace him 3,500 miles away.
"It's a privilege and a duty," Stevens told the judge of his decision to testify, minutes before jurors re-entered the room to hear him.
Stevens' testimony followed that of his wife, Catherine, who oversaw the financial details of the renovations and wrote most of the large checks for it. She took the stand to help support the defense's position that the Alaska senator had paid all the bills he received in connection with the work.
Catherine Stevens, who's a lawyer, often turned to speak directly to the jury while Stevens' defense attorney questioned her. She began grasping for answers when the chief federal prosecutor in the case started a series of probing questions about who'd paid for a deck that was added to the Girdwood home in 2002 after the original renovations.
"Who built the deck?" prosecutor Brenda Morris asked.
"I don't know who built the deck," Catherine Stevens said. "We paid for the deck, I thought."
"Weren't you responsible for paying for the renovations at the chalet?" Morris asked. "Who sent you a bill you thought was paid?"
Stevens' wife said she'd called the bookkeeper in her husband's Senate office to see whether a bill had come in, but then, she said, "I forgot about it," and that she'd never followed up.
In 2004, however, a reporter with a weekly newspaper in Anchorage called Stevens' press office on a tip that Veco had paid for the deck. In consultation with Catherine Stevens, the senator's press spokeswoman issued a statement that said the Stevenses' neighbor, Bob Persons, oversaw the deck construction. The general contractor that handled all the renovations also built the deck, the Stevenses said in their 2004 statement.
That statement and Catherine Stevens' testimony about the deck contradicted testimony by carpenter Brian Byrne, who testified in the opening days of the trial that Allen, Veco's chief executive officer, paid him $4,000 to build the deck. Byrne testified that Allen told him that "a certain amount of discretion would need to be used because it was the senator's house."
Catherine Stevens also testified that she assumed that two Veco employees who were on the job site in 2000 and 2001 were being paid by the contractor who was doing most of the work, Christensen Builders.
"He was working with Christensen Builders," Catherine Stevens said of Robert "Rocky" Williams. "He was on the job there. He was paid by them."
Same for David Anderson, another Veco employee who was working on their home, Catherine Stevens said.
"He was at the job site. I assumed he was working with Christensen Builders," she said.
Both workers were on the Veco payroll, according to earlier testimony.
(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)