WASHINGTON - A federal judge angrily halted the corruption trial of Sen. Ted Stevens on Thursday after the Alaska lawmaker's attorney accused prosecutors of withholding evidence that would help their case.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan sent the jury home for the day so he could consider arguments about whether to declare a mistrial.
Earlier, with jurors out of the courtroom, he lashed out at prosecutors for not turning over FBI reports about their star witness, Bill Allen, until late Wednesday night.
"This is not about prosecution by any means necessary," he said. "It's not about hiding the ball. ... Why shouldn't I dismiss this indictment? I find it unbelievable that this was just an error."
It was the second time Sullivan has scolded prosecutors over their case against Stevens, who's accused of lying on Senate forms about more than $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts from Allen's oil pipeline firm, VECO Corp.
Earlier this week, the judge rebuked prosecutors for sending another witness — the foreman of the renovation project — back to Alaska without notifying Stevens' lawyers.
The trial, now in its second week, was thrown into disarray Thursday morning when veteran defense attorney Brendan Sullivan demanded the judge either declare a mistrial or throw out the charges. The lawyer argued that prosecutors violated evidence rules by not turning over the FBI reports far sooner.
The reports, the defense lawyer said, showed that Allen believed his longtime friend Stevens was willing to pay for the renovations — a point he would have made in his opening statement if he had known.
"The integrity of this proceeding has been breached," Sullivan said, his voice rising.
Prosecutor Brenda Morris admitted her team had made a mistake, but insisted it was not serious enough to hurt the defense case or cause a mistrial.
"It wasn't done intentionally," she said. "It was human error."
The jury had been expected on Thursday to hear secretly recorded audiotapes of phone conversations between Allen and Stevens, the longest-serving Senate Republican.
Prosecutors say the tapes back up testimony earlier this week by Allen that he never billed Stevens for work by VECO employees that helped turn a modest A-frame into a two-story home with a garage, sauna, wine cellar and wraparound porches. Allen told the jury he didn't want his fishing and drinking buddy to pay "because I liked him."
On Wednesday, prosecutors introduced e-mails and handwritten thank-you notes from the Alaska senator, including one in 2002 telling Allen, "You owe me a bill," and citing ethics rules.
Stevens went on to say he'd asked a mutual friend to speak with Allen about the topic. But Allen said that when he spoke to the friend, Bob Persons, the message was quite different.
"Bill, don't worry about getting a bill," Allen claimed Persons said. "Ted's just covering his ass."
The senator acknowledges that, because he was working in Washington, he asked Allen to oversee the project. But Stevens says he was adamant that he pay all the bills and had no idea Allen was paying many of the costs himself.
Stevens, a patriarch of Alaska politics for generations, has been stuck in the courtroom as a Democratic opponent back home mounts a strong challenge to the seat Stevens, 84, has held for 40 years.
His opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, accused the senator on Thursday of ducking debates and challenged him to square off, "any day, any schedule."
On the Net:
Justice Department documents: http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/us-v-stevens/