All for a Brookstone Massage Chair?

Ted Stevens on trial.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens

About the time Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posed for cameras at a firehouse near Ground Zero in Manhattan Thursday morning, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens arrived at his own less voluntary photo op at the federal courthouse in Washington.

Stevens, a small man who stood a full head shorter than most members of his legal team, had decided to forgo his trademark Incredible Hulk necktie, which he wears for important votes on the Senate floor, in favor of a blue one flecked with gold—the colors of Alaska’s state flag. It was only the first day of Stevens’ corruption trial, but the reporters assigned to cover Alaskan matters in Washington already looked tired. It has been an unusual year in the 49th state’s politics, to say the least.

The lead prosecutor, Brenda Morris, tried to be reassuring. “This is a simple case,” she told the jury as the morning’s proceedings got under way, “about a public official who took hundreds of thousands of dollars, then took away the public’s right to know about it.” In July, Stevens—the longest-serving Republican in the Senate—became the first sitting senator in 27 years to be indicted on federal criminal charges. Prosecutors accused him of accepting more than $250,000 in unreported gifts and renovations to his home in the Alaskan ski-resort town of Girdwood. Most of this came courtesy of Veco Corp., a now-defunct Anchorage-based oil field service company whose CEO has since pleaded guilty to bribery and extortion in a related case back in Alaska.

Stevens’ lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, tried unsuccessfully to move the trial to Anchorage, ostensibly because Stevens needed to be there to campaign to keep his Senate seat. Immediately following the indictment, Stevens fell 17 points behind his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, although he has since pulled nearly even. Sullivan’s efforts failed, so Stevens is facing a jury with little knowledge of the Last Frontier. Asked earlier in the week what the name of Stevens’ state called to mind, one potential juror offered, “Alaska is cold.”

This gave both attorneys the opportunity to more or less invent the place in question. Girdwood, Morris told the jurors, “is like a ski town,” full of Stevens consiglieres like Veco CEO Bill Allen and Bob Persons, the owner of the Double Musky Inn in Girdwood, who helped oversee the now-infamous renovations to the Stevens’ “chalet.” “They’re old-school,” Morris said of Stevens’ friends. “Those he trusts know how to get things done for the senator, very, very subtly. That’s the way he wanted it.”

When it was his turn, Sullivan tried to recast Girdwood as a kind of boreal Mayberry. “We’re not talking about Aspen, Colorado, here,” he said. “This is a community of dirt roads.” The folksiness sat oddly with his patrician mien (he has defended Oliver North, among others). But in Sullivan’s telling, Persons became “Walking Bob,” a neighborhood character known more for walking five miles a day around town, regardless of the weather, than for his tangential association with the biggest Alaskan political scandal in a generation.

Prosecutor Morris is right—this is a simple case. But it’s also an odd one. The amount of money in question, which works out to around $36,000 a year for the seven years Stevens failed to report it, is almost endearingly small compared with what other congressmen have pulled in. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a former representative from California, made off with $2.4 million before he got busted. Tom DeLay, former congressman from Texas, allegedly picked up $1 million a pop from his benefactors. It would be a strange thing for Stevens, who has been in office since before the moon landing, to be brought down by the cigarette-burned used furniture Allen left at his house.

Especially considering what Stevens did legally. His earmarks, self-perpetuating Alaska-specific federal programs and no-bid contracts for Alaska Native corporations, collectively funnel $8 billion a year back to Alaska, the most heavily subsidized state in the country for most of the last quarter-century. Even if Stevens did fail to report the sled dog he and Allen purchased together at a charity auction, it seems a little beside the point.

In fact, as Thursday’s arguments wore on, it was hard not to think that Sullivan’s efforts to portray his client as a well-meaning but busy guy, duped by the dastardly oilman Allen, made a much less convincing case for his innocence than Stevens’ own record of heeling his constituents. If he had pursued his corruption with any seriousness, couldn’t the man who snagged $100 million for the University of Alaska to study the energy-generating potential of the aurora borealis have done better for himself than a Brookstone massage chair and a nice barbecue grill?

But it is a legal cliché that the big fish often get caught on the small stuff. So, Sullivan spent most of the morning sloughing the responsibility for the home remodel onto someone the prosecution barely mentioned: Stevens’ wife, Catherine. * “It is with a little discomfort that I warn you we have to look at the relationship between Ted and Catherine,” Sullivan said before diving in. Stevens had “no instinct for design,” and it was Catherine who handled the couple’s finances, fielding the bills or lack thereof for the home improvements.

“When it comes to things in and around the teepee, the wife controls,” Sullivan said. “That might seem a little old-fashioned, but Ted Stevens is old-fashioned.” He’d better hope the jurors are, too.

Sullivan also argued that the second round of work Veco did on the chalet, including the installation of a $20,000 roof heating system, was necessary only because the initial work they did was shoddy in places—meaning that Stevens shouldn’t have had to pay for it, anyway.

Maybe, but that’s the thing about home remodels: They always end up costing you more than you thought they would.

Correction, Sept. 29, 2008: This article originally stated that Stevens’ wife, Catherine, was seated in the second row of the courtroom. She was not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)