WASHINGTON - Contractor Robert Williams spent nearly six months remodeling Sen. Ted Stevens' home and, to him, it was just another of his boss's pet projects. He helped run the senator's fundraisers and moved some furniture for him, too, but it never seemed to matter who covered his pay.
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"I never had any doubts about it until the FBI came down and served me with subpoenas," Williams said.
Now, it matters a great deal. Williams is a key witness in a bribery investigation that stretches from Alaska to Capitol Hill and threatens legal and political headaches for the Senate's longest-serving Republican. Federal candidates are prohibited from accepting money or services from corporations, and the FBI is already investigating whether Stevens received illegal gifts from VECO Corp., the once powerful Alaska oil contractor.
Williams said he was in charge of "special projects" for VECO founder Bill Allen, and the renovation of Stevens' home was one such project. Others included working three or four fundraisers for Stevens while on the clock with VECO.
Unlike other VECO employees, Williams did not itemize his time sheets with job codes so customers could be billed. When working on one of Allen's pet projects, Williams just logged his hours and VECO made sure he was paid.
At fundraisers, including at least one at the home of Stevens' brother-in-law, Williams said he was assigned odd jobs. He delivered ice, arranged for table rental or oversaw the four or five VECO employees parking cars.
"If I didn't have parking patrol, I basically just had to be there to make sure nothing got messed up," Williams recalled in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Alaska.
Williams said he also helped run annual fundraising pig roasts for Rep. Don Young, another Alaska Republican who has come under scrutiny in the VECO investigation. The fundraisers were among many Williams said he worked on during his more than 13 years at VECO.
Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders had no comment Wednesday. The senator has said he wants to avoid any suggestion he was trying to influence the investigation by discussing it publicly.
A spokesman for Young's office referred questions to his campaign spokesman, who did not immediately return a call.
Corporations are prohibited from donating to federal candidates, and that includes providing services, said Kenneth A. Gross, a Washington campaign lawyer and former Federal Election Commission counsel.
"The company would have had to have been paid," Gross said.
Young recently amended his campaign finance reports to reflect $38,000 in back payments to Allen for the fundraisers. A review of Stevens' campaign finance expenditures since 2000 revealed no payments to VECO or Allen for fundraising.
Robert K. Kelner, another elections attorney and former Republican National Committee lawyer, said the question is whether Stevens or his campaign workers knew the VECO employees were on the clock.
"Should a thoughtful candidate consider that possibility and look into it? Yes," Kelner said. "Do they have a legal obligation to be that thoughtful? No."
Fundraising and favors are at the heart of the corruption investigation, which has ensnared several Alaska legislators. Allen has pleaded guilty to bribing lawmakers and is cooperating with the FBI. He admitted in court last week that his employees provided "some labor" on Stevens' house in 2000, but Williams recalled the job in greater detail.
Williams remembered spending two or three days a week for about six months at Stevens' house, supervising workers and installing hardwood floors. He also recalled moving a truckload of furniture, including a bed and a rug, from Stevens' mother-in-law's house to the senator's home.
The renovation was supposed to have been just a concrete slab in the basement. But groundwater levels complicated the job, Williams said, so workers raised the house, built a new first floor and added electrical and plumbing connections.
A few other VECO employees helped on the job and Williams hired outside contractors. A garage was added, though Williams isn't sure how that idea came up.
VECO isn't in the residential construction business. Its workers build oil pipelines. But Williams said Allen often assigned him work for friends and family. Stevens and Allen are longtime friends, so Williams didn't think the renovation project was unusual.
Stevens met with workers and knew VECO was handling the job, Williams said, so he assumed the senator was reimbursing VECO for his time. Stevens has said he paid every bill he received on the house.
"Ted said he wanted to make sure everything is paid for," Williams recalled from an early meeting with Allen and Stevens.
He recalls Stevens and his wife paying for flooring and is certain the senator paid for at least some of the work. But because Williams didn't record his time at Stevens' house, he said nobody could know for sure how much his time cost.
At the time, he assumed that when he signed off on expenses and submitted them to VECO, the company would pass those bills on to Stevens. Now, he's not so sure.
"I think Bill's ego got away from him," Williams said. "I think he did what he thought he could do."
Allen liked to do things his own way and wasn't fussy about separating business and friendship, Williams said. "Bill's personal life and the company were one and the same."
Williams testified about the house project before a federal grand jury in Anchorage. He couldn't remember the total cost of the renovation, but said the Justice Department seemed to already know more about the project than he did.
Investigators were "very thorough" and had numerous documents and bills associated with the house, he said.
"I thought everything was on the up and up," Williams said. "I'm disappointed with the way things turned out and I'm sorry for Ted."
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