- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

The Republican from Alaska took gifts from a powerful business owner and then lied about it.

But a lawyer for Mr. Stevens, describing his defense publicly for the first time, told jurors Thursday the case is far from being that clear.

Mr. Stevens, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, is charged with failing to report more than $250,000 worth of home renovations and gifts from a company that built equipment in oil fields.

Defense attorney Brendan Sullivan said during opening arguments that Mr. Stevens paid every home improvement bill he received and honestly completed the financial disclosure forms.

What the jury chooses to believe may depend largely on the testimony of Bill Allen, a figure who promises to loom large in the case.

Allen rose from a ninth-grade dropout to the owner of VECO, one of Alaska’s largest companies, which was sold for hundreds of millions to a Colorado company last year.

Allen also is a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska to help VECO and he is cooperating with prosecutors as part of his plea agreement.

Authorities say Mr. Stevens gladly accepted the gifts from Allen and didn’t mind doing favors in return. Despite those allegations, Mr. Stevens is not charged with bribery, which is the cornerstone of typical corruption cases.

Prosecutors further said that Mr. Stevens’ four decades in Washington gave him knowledge to try to game the system.

“Ladies and gentleman, you do not survive as a politician for that long in this town without being very very smart, very very deliberate, very forceful and, at the same time, knowing how to fly under the radar,” prosecutor Brenda Morris said.

Mr. Sullivan said it was Allen who was too forceful. He argued that Allen told a contractor he had “to eat” the final bill for renovations to Mr. Stevens’ Girwood home.

“This was not known to the Stevenses,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This was something Bill Allen decided to do.”

Mr. Sullivan said Mr. Stevens and his wife, Catherine, lived most of the time in Washington, D.C., more than 3,000 miles from Girwood, and relied on Allen and others to ensure the renovations went smoothly. Those renovations included putting the home on stilts, building a new first floor and wrap-around decks.

Mr. Stevens and his wife received five bills from the contractor before Allen’s strong-arm tactics, Mr. Sullivan argued.

“Every bill submitted was paid, every one of them,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This project cost about $160,000, which is about what it should have cost.”

Other times, Mr. Sullivan argued, Allen gave gifts Mr. Stevens did not want or ask for. The gifts included an elaborate gas grill and $55,000 in Christmas lights for a 70-foot pine tree.

Mr. Stevens and, particularly, his wife, wanted Allen to take back those gifts.

The trial opened less than a month before Mr. Stevens tries to win re-election to a seventh term. He faces what could prove to be a difficult challenge from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat.

Mr. Stevens was indicted in July and his lawyers requested the trial be held on an accelerated schedule so their client could have a chance to clear his name before Election Day.

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