WASHINGTON - Writing to an old friend in October 2002, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens offered effusive praise - and a caveat - for work the friend was overseeing on Stevens' home in Alaska.
"Thanks for the work on the chalet," Stevens wrote to his friend, oilman Bill J. Allen. "You owe me a bill - remember Torricelli, my friend. Friendship is one thing. Compliance with the ethics rules entirely different."
Stevens even ordered Allen to consult with a mutual friend about how to resolve the issue.
"Don't get p.o.'d at him," he wrote. "It's (sic) just has to be done right."
On its face, the note appears to buttress the position of Stevens and his lawyers that the long-serving Republican took seriously Senate disclosure rules about the receipt of gifts, and did not violate federal law. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., left office after an investigation into allegedly illegal campaign contributions.
But the government has a sharply different view.
Allen, its star witness, testified Wednesday that the letters were part of an elaborate ruse constructed to mask the fact that Stevens was knowingly and illegally getting gifts and improvements worth more than $250,000 free from Allen and others.
Allen recounted how, at Stevens' suggestion, he discussed the billing issue with their friend, restaurant owner Bob Persons, who was also involved with the renovation, and that Persons told him to ignore it.
"Bill, don't worry about getting a bill," Allen said Persons told him. "Ted's just covering his ass," Allen said Persons told him.
"Did you send Senator Stevens a bill or invoice after receiving this?" prosecutor Joseph Bottini asked Wednesday.
Allen replied that he did not.
Allen's credibility is crucial to the prosecution, which is expected to wrap up its case against Stevens by Friday.
He testified Wednesday that Stevens mentioned the bill to him on another occasion, about a month after the first note, in which Stevens commented on an elaborate outside lighting display that Allen had installed for the lawmaker. The government says the lights cost about $20,000, and that Stevens never reported them.
"The Christmas lights top it all," Stevens enthused. "(Don't forget we need a bill for what's been done out at the chalet.)"
Allen testified that he still did not send a bill, citing the advice he had received from Persons.
"I really didn't want to," he testified, "because I wanted to help Ted."
The home improvements transformed the small A-frame cabin in the resort town of Girdwood south of Anchorage into a two-story home with wraparound porches and other amenities.
Allen also testified how he and three other men purchased a bronze statue for Stevens at a charity auction, and with the help of Stevens' son, hauled the art work to the chalet and placed it on the front porch. The government says the bronze depiction of migrating salmon was worth about $30,000.
Allen said the gift was intended for a library "or some kind of building for Ted," to commemorate his years of public service, which has not yet been constructed.