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WASHINGTON - A behind-the-scenes move by prosecutors - sending an ailing potential witness home to Alaska - has angered a federal judge and given Sen. Ted Stevens an opening to renew allegations that 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 Stevens' 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.
Stevens, 84, is charged with lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about work done on his hillside cabin and other gifts he received from VECO Corp., a powerful Alaska oil pipeline contractor.
The senator says that if anything was tacked onto 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 resumed calling a parade of VECO employees who did work on the cabin: One described installing elaborate outdoor lighting so bright it upset the neighbors; another said because "the senator was maturing," VECO ordered a light switch installed to make it easier for Stevens to illuminate a sculpture of migrating salmon.
Prosecutors said Allen could begin testifying late today.
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 earlier Monday 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.
Because the government has e-mail evidence of the senator, Allen and Williams discussing the remodel, "We don't need him," the prosecutor said of Williams. "We think the documents ... prove the point here."
After defense attorneys told him 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. They also suggested 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, the senator is tethered to a Washington courtroom.