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Alaska senator didn't know oil company paid bills, lawyer argues

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  • NEW: Defense attorney said Stevens thought he had paid for renovations
  • NEW: Sen. Kennedy will be called as a character witness, Stevens' lawyer says
  • Prosecutor: Sen. Ted Stevens a crafty politician who learned how to hide gifts
  • Stevens faces charges of failing to report gifts from oil services company
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From Paul Courson
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican on trial for corruption charges, did not know that an oil company was paying for improvements on his home, Stevens' defense attorney contended in opening statements Thursday.

An artist sketch shows Sen. Ted Stevens' lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, gesturing towards his client.

Stevens is fighting a seven-count indictment accusing him of filing false information on mandatory Senate financial disclosure forms.

Prosecutors say he failed to report gifts and services of substantial value, including improvements to his Alaska home, from oil services contractor Veco Energy, one of the state's biggest employers.

What started as "a one-story, A-frame cabin doubled in size and became a new home from basically the inside out," prosecutor Brenda Morris said in her opening statement.

Stevens thought he had paid in full for the extensive renovations, said Brendan Sullivan, Stevens' attorney, but had been deceived by Bill Allen, a former Alaska businessman who is one of the key witnesses against the senator. Video Watch why Stevens is on trial »

Allen pleaded guilty in May 2007 to handing out more than $400,000 "in corrupt payments" to Alaska officials, not including Stevens, the Department of Justice said in announcing the Stevens' indictment in July.

Allen is cooperating with the Department of Justice as part of his plea agreement.

Allen arranged for some bills to be kept from Stevens, who had been "promptly" paying the bills he had received, Sullivan contended.

That meant Stevens could not be held responsible for failing to declare gifts, the crime of which he is accused, Sullivan said.

"You can't report what you don't know," Sullivan said.

"They did pay, overall, $160,000 for this renovation project," Sullivan said of Stevens and his wife, Catherine, "which you will find from the evidence is exactly or closely what it should have been."

But Morris said Stevens had learned how to hide such gifts during the decades he has spent in the Senate, according to The Associated Press.

Morris also charged that Stevens has thumbed his nose at the public's right to know about the gifts, the AP reported.

"You do not survive politics in this town for that long without being very, very smart; very, very deliberate; very forceful and, at the same time, knowing how to fly under the radar," Morris told jurors, the AP reported.

The defense rejected the prosecution's claims.

"Ted Stevens had no intent to violate the law. He did file accurate statements to the best of his knowledge," Sullivan said.

He said the jury will see evidence that Stevens' payments for the renovations "exactly or closely what it should have been."

Morris told the jury Stevens used Veco as a handyman contractor, requesting maintenance on the renovated home.

"We reach for the Yellow Pages," she said. "He reached for Veco."

Stevens is not charged with receiving bribes, although prosecutors allege in the indictment that the senator "could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of Veco."

Stevens hopes to clear his name by November in time for voters to decide whether to re-elect him. He has continued to campaign since his July 29 indictment.

The judge will allow Stevens to be absent from the courtroom in the weeks ahead if Stevens needs to vote on Senate financial bailout legislation. He has asked defense lawyers not to emphasize his possible absence from the courtroom during the trial.

The federal courthouse is a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

District Judge Emmet Sullivan warned defense lawyers Wednesday not to use their client's absence to win favor.

"You are not to give the appearance that 'I'm not here because of the business of the people,' the judge said. "Of course, that's a double-edged sword," Sullivan said, referring to troubled efforts to come up with a government bailout plan.

Prosecutors allege that Stevens received more than $250,000 worth of gifts, including a new first floor, garage and deck on his home; a new Land Rover that was exchanged for an older car; and a gas grill.

A sculpture of fish swimming upstream may also come up in testimony, which is said to be worth $29,000. Prosecutors have told the judge "it's a very large statue sitting on his front porch" at the senator's home in Alaska.

Stevens is an avid fisherman. His attorneys have said the sculpture belongs to a foundation that is planning to create a Stevens congressional library.

The jury was seated Wednesday and consists of 11 women and five men.

All 16 will hear the case, with four serving as alternates. Their status will not be disclosed until the end of the trial.

Sullivan also said he planned to call Sen. Edward Kennedy, the veteran Massachusetts Democrat, as a character witness.

Kennedy's office did not comment when contacted by CNN.

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Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, are among the prospective witnesses in the trial, according to a list read to the jury pool Monday as part of finding a qualified panel.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is among the more than 200 names on the list. Jury members were asked whether they recognized any of the names. Those selected to serve in the Stevens jury had said they did not know any of the people personally.

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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