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The Ted Stevens corruption trial is grinding to a close. The veteran Alaska senator, who is so widely referred to as Uncle Ted in his home state, is fighting a two-front battle this fall. At home, he's in a tough re-election race. In Washington, D.C. he's on trial, accused of lying on a Senate disclosure form in order to conceal a quarter of a million dollars in gifts and services. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has been covering the trial.
NINA TOTENBERG: The oddness of the way the Stevens trial has unfolded is matched only by the peculiarity of the hands-off approach Senator and Mrs. Stevens had to house and home in Alaska. Usually, you expect the defendant to suffer his worst blows during the prosecution's case, in chief, but no, not this time. Prosecutors made so many mistakes and broke so many rules that the presiding judge, out of the hearing of the jury, accused prosecutors of knowingly submitting evidence that was a lie.
Judge Emmet Sullivan decided against declaring a mistrial, but instead instructed the jury to disregard key pieces of evidence. Things started looking up for the prosecution, though, 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 from Senator Stevens and his wife, Catherine. Mrs. Stevens said she was the one in charge of the renovation on the couple's Alaska home and paid all the bills she got. She had no idea that oil industry executive Bill Allen absorbed tens of thousands of dollars in labor and material costs, and she was furious when Allen took it upon himself to remove the Stevens' furniture and replace it with his stuff - some of it new, some old with cigarette burns.
Prosecutor Brenda Morris observed that Mrs. Stevens is a partner in a major law firm. You make close to half a million dollars. Why didn't you just have Allen's furniture taken to the dump? The prosecutor seemed to flummox Mrs. Stevens with even more uncomfortable questions. Did you use the senator's staff to pay your Saks Fifth Avenue bill? Your overdue Blockbuster bill? Did you do 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? Mrs. Stevens ran her fingers through her hair, shrugged her shoulders in frustration, but for the most part came up empty.
Senator Stevens spent all day 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's a risky move, but at 84, he was calm and sharp in his responses, holding his famous temper in check and tartly parrying Prosecutor Morris' questions on cross-examination. Bill Allens' testimony that Stevens' request for bills were quote "just Ted covering his ass" - that testimony, the senator said, was an absolute lie. Stevens said he repeatedly asked for all the bills, assumed that he'd gotten them and that his wife had paid them. He said he didn't want many of the expensive items that Bill 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 wrap-around deck? He thought he'd been billed for it 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.
Prosecutor Morris - 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? Stevens replied: I trusted him. 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 to the jury by Tuesday. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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