WASHINGTON – Sen. Ted Stevens took the stand in federal court Wednesday,but it was just for practice.
During a break in his trial for failing to report home renovations,Stevens sat in the witness chair as his lawyers performed sound checks and made sure he could see exhibits on the screen.
“Can you hear us?” his lawyer,Robert Cary asked.
“Yes,yes,I can,” Stevens replied sternly.
As the defendant,Stevens does not have to testify,but his lawyers listed him as a witness,along with his wife,who is expected to testify Thursday.
The rehearsal took about a minute on a day when a friend of Stevens downplayed secretly recorded audiotapes already played in court that suggested the Alaska patriarch's requests for home renovation bills were to save face.
Earlier in the trial,prosecutors played taped conversations between Girdwood,Alaska,restaurant owner Bob Persons and Bill Allen,a key witness against the senator,to show the two devising a way to make it look as though Stevens paid for free home repairs.
On the witness stand,Persons sought to discredit Allen,the former head of VECO Corp.,an oil-services company that allegedly gave the senator free home renovations.
Stevens faces seven counts of failing to disclose on Senate forms $250,000 in gifts and home renovations to his Girdwood ski home.
Persons swatted away some of Allen's more damning testimony,such as an encounter in which Persons allegedly said,”Bill,don't worry about getting a bill. Ted's just covering his ass.”
Asked if he said this to the oil services tycoon,Persons said,”No” before seconds later exclaiming,”crazy.”
He also added that he had never been asked about the exchange in grand jury testimony or multiple interviews with the FBI.
In another rebuttal of previous testimony,he said he was joking when he told Allen,”Ted gets hysterical when he has to spend his own money.”
Prosecutor Nicholas Marsh tried to punch holes in Persons' credibility,showing inconsistencies between his claims in court and his grand jury testimony during initial stages of the investigation.
He zeroed in on Christmas lights installed at the senator's home.
Had he known about the Christmas lights,Persons said in court,he would have never let them go up because Stevens would have disapproved.
However,Marsh brought up an e-mail from Persons to Stevens in which he told the senator a VECO employee would make sure the lights were working.
Persons reiterated Wednesday that he believed the lights had never been turned on.
“Mr. Persons,how did you know they were broken if you never turned them on?” the lawyer asked.
Since they were never on,Persons replied,there must have been something wrong with them.
Stevens has claimed he paid every bill he knew about and that Allen never filled him in about all the payments he owed.
Persons did not fall on the sword for Stevens but instead blamed the VECO head for keeping Stevens in the dark.
In particular,he discussed a plumbing bill Allen offered to pay. “Bill had told me he wanted to pay the labor and didn't want Ted to know about it,” he testified. Stevens later learned Allen had paid for the labor,according to Persons,and requested a bill.
Catherine Stevens,Stevens' wife,is expected to say she handled the payments for the renovations.
Before the testimony from Persons,a construction company owner said Allen pressured him not to bill Stevens for about $13,000 in work to the chalet.
Christensen Builders Inc. Owner Augie Paone said Allen suggested he “eat the bill or look at it as a political contribution.”
A shocked Paone said he pushed for payment but gave in because he did not want to get on the bad side of Allen,a man who could use his influence to cripple his business.
“I knew he had me in a spot where I really couldn't do anything,” he said.
This contradicts earlier testimony from Allen,who claimed he never told Paone to “eat a bill.”
The two stories converged,however,when Paone said Allen tacked the $13,000 payment on to renovations Paone made to Allen's home.
Despite Paone's insistence his bills were legitimate,he admitted fearing Stevens would eventually come under fire because of the throng of VECO employees,ranging from plumbers to electricians,working on the property.
“I was concerned that the senator wasn't getting billed for some of that stuff,” he said.
According to recent polls,Stevens is in a dead heat with Anchorage Democratic Mayor Mark Begich to retain the Senate seat he has held for 40 years.
“Uncle Ted,” as he is known in Alaska,would be the final defense witness.