The Ted Stevens corruption trial is grinding to a close. The veteran Republican senator from Alaska, widely referred to as "Uncle Ted" in his home state, is fighting a two-front battle this fall.
At home, he is in a tough re-election race, while in Washington he is on trial, accused of lying on his Senate disclosure form in order to conceal a quarter-million dollars in gifts and services.
The oddness of the way the Stevens trial has unfolded is matched only by the peculiarity of the hands-off approach the senator and his wife, Catherine, had to their home in Alaska.
Usually, you expect the defendant to suffer his worst blows during the prosecution's case. But not this time. Prosecutors made so many mistakes and broke so many rules that the presiding judge, out of earshot of the jury, accused prosecutors of knowingly submitting evidence that was false. Judge Emmett Sullivan decided against declaring a mistrial, but instead instructed the jury to disregard key pieces of evidence.
Things started looking up for the prosecution when the defense started putting on its case. Prosecutors scored points with each new defense witness, sometimes managing to make defense testimony look improbable and witnesses sleazy.
At the end of this week came testimony Stevens and his wife. Catherine Stevens said she was the one in charge of the renovation on the couple's Alaska home and paid all the bills she received. She had no idea that oil industry executive Bill Allen absorbed tens of thousands of dollars in labor and material costs, and was furious when Allen took it upon himself to remove the Stevens' furniture and replace it with his own, some of it new, some old, with cigarette burns.
Prosecutor Brenda Morris observed that Catherine Stevens is a partner in a major law firm. You make close to a half million dollars, she said, why didn't you just have Allen's furniture taken to the dump?
The prosecutor seemed to flummox Catherine Stevens with more uncomfortable questions. Did you use the senator's staff to pay your Saks Fifth Avenue bill? Your overdue Blockbuster bill? Did you use the staff to feed your cats, and to cash checks for you? Didn't you use the senator's staff aide as a human ATM machine? The witness ran her fingers through her hair and shrugged her shoulders in frustration, but for the most part, came up empty.
Sen. Stevens spent all of yesterday on the witness stand. Testifying in his own defense, he is simultaneously speaking to two audiences: the voters in Alaska and the jury. It is a risky move. But at 84, he was calm and sharp in his responses, holding his famous temper in check and tartly parrying Morris' questions on cross examination.
Bill Allen's testimony that Stevens' requests for bills were "just Ted covering his ass," was an absolute lie, the senator said. Stevens said he repeatedly asked for all the bills, assumed that he had gotten them and that his wife had paid them. Stevens said he didn't want many of the expensive items that Allen kept providing at the house and told him to take them away.
The big gas grill? Stevens said he never used it and that his wife thought it was dangerous around the grandchildren. The wraparound deck? He thought he had been billed and paid for it. The huge back-up generator? He didn't want it. Ditto the steel stairway, the balcony and the toolbox. And that furniture Allen had sent over? Stevens told the jury he demanded it be taken away. But seven years later, the furniture is still there.
You were the lion of the Senate but you didn't know how to stop Bill Allen from putting big ticket items in your home? Morris asked.
I trusted him, Stevens replied. He was my friend. He used the house more than I did.
All those requests for bills, the prosecutor suggested, they were just you covering your bottom?
No ma'am, Stevens replied. My bottom is not bare.
The Stevens case is expected to go the jury by Tuesday.