Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No Wait! You Don't Understand--I Really AM the Dumbest Person in the World!

On October 27 2008, a federal jury in Washington found Alaska Senator Ted Stevens guilty on all seven charged felony counts of lying to congress. All along, from the moment the investigation started, through his indictment, demand for a speedy trial, and even the after his conviction, Senator Stevens has protested his innocence, complaining bitterly at how unfairly he has been treated. For example, Senator Stevens's campaign has issued the following statement: "I am innocent, This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial."

October 27, 2008: The day it sucked to be Senator Ted Stevens. On the plus side, though, he did get the BEST deal on the mountain cabin re-build.

Now, if you are someone who lives on Planet Earth and whose life is governed by some semblance of logic and reason, you might have a few questions about this case. I am most happy to oblige. Disclosure: I did not attend the trial, nor read any transcripts. I am basing this information on the reporting by National Public Radio (Ms. Nina Totenberg, in particular), wire reports from the AP and Reuters, and my own past experience as a criminal defense attorney.

Hope this helps.

1. What the heck are they (unspecified) TALKING about?

Honestly--You probably don't want to know. As the famed former Chancellor and meat afficionado Otto "Ironman" von Bismark noted: "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." I have never seen sausage made, but back in the day I ate a fair amount of chorizo. The only way I was able to do so, was if I first cleared my mind of any thought of what I was eating. But I have seen laws made and interpreted, in both courts & legislatures. And my stomach will never be the same.

Ask yourself if maybe this isn't a good spot to turn back, and go watch another hilarious Simpsons rerun.

2. Was Senator Stevens charged with stealing money or accepting bribes?

No. And here's the tricky part: Senator Stevens was charged with "lying," or knowingly filing false reports listing contributions and gifts he received.

3. So, in the immortal words of Gene Autry: Show Me the Money.

For reasons personal to them, the Senator and Mrs. Ted Stevens wanted to remodel their old Girdwood Alaska mountain cabin. Again, for reasons unknown to the public at large, Senator Stevens decided to go with his old buddy, Mr. Bill Allen as the general contractor in charge of construction.

Governor Palin dropping a dime CANADA STYLE in St. Louis. Of course, some people booed--and now Senator Stevens wishes he was there to boo as well.

Mr. Allen, not a building contractor by trade, is in fact the former chief executive of VECO, a now defunct oil services company that did lots of government business, with help from Senator Stevens. Ultimately, the work doubled the square footage of the Stevens' cabin, transforming it into a modern two story home with wrap around porches, a wine cellar, a sauna, and lots of fancy pantsy appliances.

4. So what?

Here's what: Mr. Allen was responsible for making sure all the work was done, and then bill Senator (and Mrs.) Stevens appropriately. The Mrs. Senator was in charge of the "business end" of the renovation, and (according to the testimony of the Senator and the Mrs.) she paid Mr. Allen $160,000. So far so good. But here's the "oh oh" part. Near as the Department of Justice could figure, Mr. Allen did roughly $410,000. worth of work on the Stevens' mountain cabin--or at least $250,000. more than the Senator paid for. I hate when that happens.

5. Did Senator Stevens promise to do something improper for Mr. Allen and/or VECO, in exchange for $250,000. worth of free cabin improvements?

Not that anyone is aware of. That's not what Senator Stevens was charged with, nor what he was convicted of.

6. Huh?

See above re sausage. Proving outright bribery is very difficult, as in "You give me X dollars now, and I'll vote for Y bill." People who are old (like me) may remember back in the day when FBI agents pretended to be agents of an unspecified "Arab" named Kambir Abdul Rahman (I am not making that up), who offered a fairly modest pile of cash in exchange for introducing a "private bill" to facilitate the Arab's anticipated immigration problems. The fake company was called "Abdul Enterprises, Ltd."--oh, those were kinder, gentler, and definitely dumber times. "ABSCAM," as the caper was known, targeted 31 officials, with one Senator and five Representatives actually taking their cases to trial. FYI, the video tape of Congressman Richard Kelly (R-Fl), actually showed the congressman jamming $25,000. in cash in his pockets, then turning to the undercover FBI agents and asking "Does it show?" I really hate when that happens.

So, in an effort to catch only the most grotesque and blatant corruption, our federal solons are required to regularly report any and all "gifts" and contributions they receive. These reports are sworn statements, meaning not telling the truth is a felony Bozo no-no.

7. So--Senator Stevens got $250,000 of free work on his house, and forgot to mention it on his disclosure forms? Is that all?

I wish. In American courts, criminal law has two separate aspects: an actus reus and a mens rea. Before a body can be convicted of a crime, that person must commit an actus reus, or some guilty act. For example, I can daydream about robbing the Federal Reserve in San Francisco all day every day, but until I take some concrete step towards committing that action (buying guns, casing the building, trying to recruit some fellow day dreamers to join me, etc), there is no crime.

Ms. Lauren Bacall. You don't HAVE to try to be trying to write like Raymond Chandler to include her photo. Heck, Ms. Bacall doesn't even have to appear in the note.

Likewise, no crime can be committed without mens rea, or a criminal intent. A classic example is when someone sends me ten kilos of weapons grade uranium in the US mail (book rate, because ten kilos is pretty heavy and my contacts are all cheap-os), my postal carrier has not committed a crime. True, my letter carrier has physically delivered contraband to me (an actus reus), but there is no way the carrier knew, or should have known, that I was getting uranium--no mens rea.

So, outside of a few marginal exceptions, for a criminal conviction, the State must prove both mens rea (you knew what you were doing) and actus reus (you at least started doing something).

Getting back to Senator Stevens's case, we have seven examples of actus reus: he submitted seven forms (I'm assuming seven different forms) that failed to list all donations and gifts he received. Those forms were incorrect, in that they failed to include $250,000 of home improvements. That's actus reus times seven, but not necessarily proof of mens rea.

8. So what you are saying that is that Senator Stevens just didn't NOTICE an additional $250,000 of improvements to his cabin, he didn't do anything wrong?

Or maybe Senator Stevens just "forgot" to mention it. Either way, it would be a complete defense (if proved) to Senator Stevens's charges. The less than complementary characterization of defenses based on the subjective mind set of the accused is "the dumbest person in the world" defense. What was Senator Stevens specifically accused of? KNOWINGLY filing false forms, that did not disclose all contributions he had received. But Senator Stevens insists he did not do that. Why? Because Senator Stevens's disclosures were accurate? Not at all; all those disclosures were wrong. But Senator Stevens didn't KNOW he was failing to report an additional $250,000 in gifts and cabin renovations.....because Senator Stevens is the DUMBEST SENATOR IN THE WORLD!

9. Are you making this up?

I wish. Read the press reports and statements from Senator Stevens. The Senator insisted that he paid EVERY bill that had been sent to him. If Mr. Allen didn't send Senator Stevens the right number of bills, how is that Uncle Ted's fault? And poor Senator Stevens--he's SO busy with the nation's work (like shouting about how he'd have to be carried off the Senate floor if he didn't get the money for the "Bridge to No Where." He got the money; a walk-off homer Hank Aaron would be proud of). It was MRS. STEVENS and Bill Allen who were in charge of all the cabin remodeling stuff. Senator Stevens was shocked SHOCKED to discover that the square footage of his cabin had been more than doubled in this remolding project. In fact, Senator Stevens was FURIOUS as soon as he heard about all those fancy appliances put in his cabin. Uncle Ted--a simple man!--he ordered that stuff be taken out. How COULD Senator Stevens know he was still getting it all that stuff? He only wanted $160,000, of improvements . . who told Bill Allen to go to $410,000? NOT Ted Stevens! etc. etc. etc.

10. So how did the Justice Department secure seven convictions against Senator Stevens?

The old fashioned way: evidence and a jury. The first thing a good prosecuting attorney needs is a soon to be former best friend to roll over. Enter Bill Allen, now a former CEO of a defunct oil services company--never a good place to be. In walks a couple of Assistant US Attorneys and a few FBI agents. The FBI agents start showing Mr. Allen documents proving beyond all doubt a $250,000 discrepancy--at least--between what Senator Stevens reported, and what was actually given to Senator Stevens. Maybe Mr. Allen can show some additional bills, receipts, proofs of payments from Senator Stevens? Not being a particularly adept forger, Mr. Allen cannot. One of the Assistant US Attorneys starts talking about possible criminal charges Mr. Allen is facing, counting prison time by decades. The other Assistant US Attorney sounds like the Tasmanian Devil from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. People in Mr. Allen's position react in a variety of ways, but the consensus is pretty much the immediate and severe wetting of pants. As they say where I come from: potential informants would sell their grandmothers into white slavery--if only their fathers hadn't beat them to it.

So Mr. Allen, he jumps at the offer to play Let's Make a Deal fast enough to sprain both ankles. What is the substance of Mr. Allen's testimony? Roughly: "I gave the Senator money," "The Senator knew I gave him money," and "Senator Stevens may be 'tupid--but he's not THAT 'tupid."

Still--Senator Stevens, he's nobody's fool--no wait, that's another speech--anyway, Uncle Ted pounds his chest, demands a speedy trial ie before the November election, because he is INNOCENT! He has done NOTHING WRONG! Then the longest serving GOP Senator walks into court, looks twelve good citizens, honest and true, in the eyeball--and says: I am not a crook.. Why? Because as God is my witness, I AM the DUMBEST man in the world! Here I Stand--I Can Do No Other.

And the jury, after hearing three days of testimony from Senator Stevens and the Mrs. Senator, say "What? Are you for real here? While there is force your argument that you are in fact an idiot, Senator, no one this side of catatonic can be THAT stupid."

And that, pals & gals, is how your friendly neighborhood US Attorney racks up guilty times seven.

11. But what if, on his financial disclosure forms, Senator Stevens had included the line: "Additional Gifts: $250,000 in cabin improvements, from VECO oil services company"? In other words, if the Senator had not lied on his disclosure forms?

Senator Stevens might have been run afoul of another statute, such as paying personal expenses with political contributions, or maybe Senator Stevens would just have been looking at a fat tax bill in April 2009--I don't know. But I do know that he would not be on the wrong end of seven felony convictions.
George Baily puts the moves on Mary Hatch . . . Probably because she is naked. Another reason why George AND NOT TED truly had a wonderful life.
12. Then why, for goodness sakes, didn't Senator Stevens just make an honest disclosure?

I have no idea. I want to believe that Senator Stevens really is a crook, and that he's trying to cover up for his guilty conscience. After all, why SHOULD the CEO of an oil services corporation rebuild a Senator's mountain cabin, playing Santa to the tune of $250,000? Because Bill Allen is just that kind of guy? I don't think so.

Still-----In 1962, writer and philosopher Ms. Hannah Arendt went to Jerusalem, and watched the trial of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann. I'm not sure if Mr. Eichmann ever personally killed someone, but it was Mr. Eichmann's job to schedule the trains that carried all the Jews, Gypsies, and miscellaneous undesirables of the Third Reich to death camps. Legally and morally, Mr. Eichmann was personally responsible for the murders of between two and three million people during the Shoah. For Ms. Arendt and a generation raised on "The Portrait of Dorian Gray," they still believed--at least, emotionally--that awful people who did awful things must look, well--awful. The most shocking--and ultimately most horrible--aspect of Mr. Eichmann was his ordinariness. The 'banality of evil' was Ms. Arendt's phrase. "Eichmann Interrogated," edited by Jochen von Lang is a summary of transcripts from Mr. Eichmann's interrogation by the Israeli police. Adolf Eichmann--he's just this guy: some little gray middle manager who was reasonably competent. Only instead being of an import-export guy,shipping tchotchkes from the east to sell in tourist traps in the west, Eichmann was an SS officer who shipped people from the west to death camps in Poland. Life would be so much easier if Eichmann looked and talked like Quasimodo. He didn't.

I've seen speculation that Senator Stevens wanted to hide his largesse, all in an effort to keep from attracting the attention of nosey people to his close--and maybe even legal, if not exactly moral or ethical--relationship with VECO. Ultimately, I think what brought Senator Stevens down was the classic Nixon gambit: some idiocy happens, then you cover it up. That blows up, and you cover up the fact you covered it up. Then you cover up the cover up of the cover up. Pretty soon, you're covering up the cover up of the cover up of the cover up....and then either your head flies off (Nixon's John Dean) or you TRULY become the dumbest person in the world (Bush's Alberto Gonzales) or you're just a lying jerk and a thug (Reagan's Oliver North).

So, in the end, what is Senator Stevens guilty of? Veco gave the Senator $250,000 in the form of a fabulous mountain cabin remodel, and Senator lied multiple times, by knowingly failing to report the gift. In an effort to hide something that he may not have even needed to hide, Senator Stevens scoops up seven felonies. Did the US Attorney prove Senator Stevens was "evil"? Doubtful. But because true corruption, the illegal quid pro quo of selling Senate votes or influence peddling is so hard to prove, the only time someone at Senator Stevens level is actually caught is not so much when they do something venal, as when they do something banal. I am not satisfied that that Senator Stevens is an evil man--but there is no doubt in my mind he is a despicable opportunist.

13. But don't Alaskans love him?

Of course they do. Why shouldn't they? Alaskans receive well over twice the average amount of per capita federal moneys, than citizens of the 'lower 48" receive. As they say where I come from: the government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul. And if there's anything Senator Stevens has done in his 40 years in the US Senate, it's robbing the hell out of the rest of country, and paying it to Alaskans.
A nice picture of Senators Murkowski and Kay Baily Hutchison, from Senator Stevens's Re-Election web site. Both Senators are voicing support for Uncle Ted. Not surprisingly, the PREVIOUS picture was a nice photo of Governor Palin with Senator Stevens--a coincidence, I am sure.

14. What--no snarky comments about Governor Sarah Palin?

Well.....Seeing that you're ASKING......After months maintaining a firm and unwavering silence on Senator Stevens's legal problems, the Palin Campaign was sorry to report that the Governor today badly sprained both her ankles (not unlike Mr. Bill Allen) in the rush to throw her beloved Uncle Ted under the bus: "The verdict shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company that was allowed to control too much of our state. It was part of the culture of corruption I was elected to fight. And that fight must always move forward regardless of party or seniority or even past service. I'm confident Senator Stevens will do what's right for the people of Alaska: Go swim with the fishes."

Okay, I made up that part about swimming with the fishes.

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