Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska: Is he a conniving Washington insider bent on concealing expensive gifts received from influential friends, or honest an lawmaker duped by one of those supposed allies?
Depends whether you believe his lawyers or the government.
Lead prosecutor Brenda Morris laid out the government's blueprints to the jury of 11 women and five men today, calling it "a simple case about a public official ... who took hundreds and thousands of dollars of financial benefits ... year after year after year."
"It is about the defendant hiding things from the public," Morris said. "He hid them from the public so he could continue to receive them."
In July, a grand jury indicted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, on charges that he lied on required Senate financial disclosure forms to conceal $250,000 worth of gifts, including a major renovation of his Girdwood, Alaska, home.
Stevens has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Morris alleged in her opening statement in at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., that Stevens knowingly omitted the gifts he received between 2000 and 2006, and has no excuse for doing so as he has filled out the paperwork for decades. Stevens, 84, has held his seat in the U.S. Senate since 1968.
"You do not survive as a politician for over 40 years in this town without being very smart and very deliberate ... flying under the radar," Morris said.
Morris also detailed Stevens' relationship with Bill Allen, the former CEO of the now-defunct oil services company Veco, which allegedly preformed much of the work on the senator's home.
Prosecutors say that Allen and others allegedly plied Stevens with gifts in order to gain favor with the powerful senator, though the indictment does not accuse Stevens of striking a quid pro quo deal with Allen or his company.
"The defendant never paid Allen or Veco a dime," Morris said.
The prosecution alleges that Stevens relied on Allen and Veco to manage the renovation project instead of going through the traditional means of hiring a contractor.
"We reach for the Yellow Pages, he reaches for Veco," Morris told the jury.
Allen pleaded guilty to corruption charges last year, but court records note he suffered a brain injury as the result of a past motorcycle accident, calling his credibility as a witness into question.
Employees of Allen's company spent thousands of hours at Stevens' home, but a contracting firm, Christensen Builders, also worked on the project and served as a buffer between Allen and Stevens, Morris alleged.
"If you look at the forms, it was like Veco was never there ... and that's the way the defendant wanted it," Morris said.
The prosecution's first witness, John Hess, a former Veco employee, allegedly drafted the blueprints for the Stevens home renovations. Hess said various Veco employees, including a steel fabrication specialist and plumber, contributed their services to the renovation project.
Morris also listed several other "sweetheart" deals that Stevens allegedly took part in, such as trading his 1964 Mustang to Allen for a 1999 Land Rover, and named gifts he allegedly received, such as a $2,700 massage chair, furniture and a Viking gas grill for the senator's home.
But defense attorney Brendan Sullivan countered the prosecution's claims, stating that "Ted Stevens had no intent to violate the law. ... Why, after 75 years, would he go out and file false statements and become a criminal?"
Sullivan said e-mails and other evidence will prove that the Stevens family did in fact pay for renovations, and that much of the confusion in the case stems from the Stevens' decision to alter some of the initial plans of the home redesign, and Allen's intervention with one of the bills.
On the project, Sullivan noted that Stevens had reached out to Allen to find workers for the project and noted the senator spent only a handful of days at the home in 2000 and 2001. "That's why he needed people to see what's going on," Sullivan said.
The defense attorney asserted that Christensen Builders did indeed send five bills to the Stevens family for the work on the home. According to Sullivan, "The bills arrived, and they were paid promptly. ... If the Stevens' family got bills, they paid them."
Sullivan claimed that the sixth and final bill showed an increase in costs, and said Allen told Christensen Builders "to eat the bill."
According to Sullivan, Allen then hired Augie Paone, who owned Christensen Builders, to do work on his own house and intended to cover the share of earlier work done on the Stevens' home.
"You can't report what you don't know," Sullivan told the jury. "If [Stevens' wife] Catherine had received a bill, they would have paid it."
Stevens paid up to $160,000 for the renovations to his house, according to Sullivan.
In August 2000, Stevens sent prosecution witness Hess a letter thanking him for his work on the house, and acknowledging, "...under our Senate rules, I must pay you for what you have done." Prosecutors submitted the letter as evidence Thursday.
As for the gifts, Sullivan had an explanation for each one. Allen used the Stevens home at times and moved in his own furniture and the elaborate gas grill. Stevens' wife didn't even want the grill, Sullivan claimed, because she was "afraid it would blow up the house."
Sullivan said Stevens believed the other gifts were not valuable enough that he would need to claim them on his forms.
But the prosecution alleges there was more going on than Stevens has admitted. Federal investigators tapped the senator's phones, and according to the government, Stevens knew he was toeing the line of legality.
Morris quoted Stevens as allegedly saying to Allen, "No one's going to get killed. ... Just some legal bills and a little jail time."
Through much of the government's opening, the senator sat sunken in his chair with a clear look of displeasure. He occasionally let out several deep breaths as Morris forcefully laid out where the government will go in its case.