A decision by prosecutors to send an ailing potential witness home to Alaska has angered a federal judge and given Sen. Ted Stevens an opening to renew allegations the government isn't playing fair in his corruption case.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected the defense's bid Monday to pull the plug on Steven's trial and throw out charges accusing the Alaska lawmaker of accepting more than $250,000 in unreported home renovations. But the judge scolded prosecutors for "unilaterally" deciding to put the project's manager, Robert Williams, on a return flight home instead of putting him on the witness stand.
"I find it very, very disturbing that this has happened," Sullivan told attorneys while jurors were on a lunch break. "I'm concerned about the appearance of impropriety."
The judge ordered prosecutors to provide a fuller explanation for why they didn't tell anyone that Williams, who was subpoenaed by both sides, went home last week on the day the trial opened. He also warned that sanctions were possible, but didn't say what kind.
Renovation costs key
Stevens, 84, is charged with lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about the work on his hillside cabin and other gifts he received from VECO Corp., a powerful Alaska oil pipeline contractor. The senator, who's running for re-election during his corruption trial, has sought to portray himself as a victim of overzealous prosecutors.
That theme re-emerged Monday at the start of the trial's second week when defense attorneys told the judge that Williams, a VECO employee, called defense attorneys from Alaska and said prosecutors had ignored important facts in the case.
Williams said the government's estimates for how much time he spent at the senator's house — and how much that time was worth — were overblown.
"That's just ..." said defense attorney Robert Cary.
"Problematic," the judge interrupted.
"It shocks us," Cary replied.
The value of the renovation is key because Stevens paid $160,000 and says he assumed it covered everything. Prosecutors say the job was so expensive, Stevens must have known his $160,000 wouldn't cover the tab.
Williams had been suffering from undisclosed health problems and prosecutors said they decided they could bring the case without him.
"We never tried to hide him," prosecutor Nicholas Marsh told the judge.
Campaigning on trial
After defense attorneys told him that Williams disputed prosecutors' version of his role, Sullivan gave them a second chance to cross-examine a VECO bookkeeper about time sheets showing he put in long hours on the senator's house. The also suggested that Williams could still be deposed in Alaska.
Stevens, the longest-serving Senate Republican, is locked in a tight re-election race against Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. While Begich is campaigning, Stevens is tethered to a Washington courtroom.
The senator says that if anything was tacked on to the job, VECO founder Bill Allen did so without telling him. Because the senator's wife handles all his finances, Stevens says there's no way he could have known Allen was adding on work.
Prosecutors had planned to put Allen, their star witness, on the stand Monday. Instead, they listed more than a dozen potential witnesses, including VECO employees, former Stevens staffers and a former Federal Election Commission official.