WASHINGTON — A close friend of Sen. Ted Stevens on Wednesday denied ever telling a crooked businessman that the Republican icon didn’t expect to pay for his home renovations, a key charge in the Alaska senator’s federal corruption trial.
Stevens, 84, is fighting charges that he lied on Senate financial disclosure forms about more than $250,000 in home improvements and other gifts from multimillionaire Bill Allen, chief of oil services company VECO Corp.
Allen has said that Bob Persons, who served as Stevens’ representative on the renovation, told him the senator’s demand for bills was a ruse.
But Persons denies ever saying that to Allen, who has pleaded guilty to bribing state legislators.
“Did you ever say to Bill Allen, ‘Bill, don’t worry about getting a bill. Ted’s just covering his ass,’ ” defense attorney Robert Cary asked Wednesday.
Laughing, Persons said, “No,” and added, “That’s crazy.”
The defense has sought to cast Allen’s claim as a fabrication extracted by prosecutors only two weeks before trial. Persons said no one from the Justice Department in the yearslong investigation of Stevens had ever asked him about Allen’s claim before Cary brought it up in court Wednesday.
Stevens and his wife Catherine are scheduled to be the final defense witnesses in the trial. The senator, a patriarch of Alaska politics for generations, has languished in the courtroom in Washington as a Democratic opponent back home mounts a strong challenge to the seat the senator has held for 40 years.
Federal prosecutors have alleged that Stevens knew he was getting free or cut-rate home renovations and intentionally concealed them. But defense attorneys say Catherine Stevens paid every bill received by the couple — $160,000 in all — and that Allen kept Stevens in the dark about the extent of the work and its cost.
Allen, who was overseeing the job for his old friend Stevens, had secretly recorded telephone calls with Persons and Stevens as part of his arrangement with federal prosecutors.
A contractor who worked on the chalet, Augie Paone, also testified that Allen pressured him to withhold a $13,393 bill for carpentry and other work. Allen “stated maybe I should eat the bill or look at it as a political contribution,” Paone told jurors.
“I was shocked,” Paone said. “I knew I was in a bind because I knew I couldn’t really do anything.”
Paone testified he eventually got paid months later by tacking Stevens’ tab onto an invoice for a separate job at Allen’s home.
Under cross-examination Wednesday, Paone testified that it was clear that VECO workers were doing many of the upgrades that transformed the modest A-frame cabin into a handsome two-story home. He also said he was worried it might lead to trouble.
“I was concerned that the senator wasn’t getting billed for some of that stuff, and I was concerned something like this might happen,” Paone testified.
So far in the defense case, jurors have heard character witnesses like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Olympic swimmer-turned-broadcaster Donna de Varona sing Stevens’ praises. When asked Tuesday about Stevens’ reputation among colleagues, Hatch called him one of the “legends of the U.S. Senate.”