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Last Update: August 19, 2007 7:46 AM
Stevens' Girdwood house was jacked up and had a new story built underneath the original one. Its assessed value now is $440,900.
GIRDWOOD: Veco approved some invoices for 2000 upgrade at senator's house, says builder.
Published: May 29, 2007
Last Modified: May 29, 2007 at 08:45 AM
The FBI and a federal grand jury have been investigating an extensive remodeling project at U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' home in Girdwood that involved the top executive of Veco Corp. in the hiring of at least one of the key contractors.
Three contractors who worked on the project said in recent interviews with the Daily News that the FBI asked them to turn over their records from the job. One said he was called to testify about the project before a federal grand jury in Anchorage in December.
The remodeling work, which more than doubled the size of the house, occurred in the summer and fall of 2000. The four-bedroom home, about two blocks from the day lodge parking lot at the Alyeska ski resort, is Stevens' official residence in Alaska.
An old friend of Stevens in Girdwood, longtime Double Musky restaurant owner Bob Persons, has been questioned by the FBI about the project. He monitored the remodeling for Stevens and his wife while they were in Washington, D.C.
"I will be testifying. That's all I can tell you," Persons said in a brief interview last week. "It is an ongoing investigation that I'm not supposed to talk to or see anybody about it."
Persons would not elaborate on whether he meant that he would testify before a grand jury, at a trial, or both, or for whom. He said he believed Stevens did nothing wrong.
Ted Stevens and his wife, Catherine, declined to answer questions about the Girdwood house. In a prepared statement issued by his office, Stevens said: "While I understand the public's interest in the ongoing federal investigation, it has been my long-standing policy to not comment on such matters. Therefore, I will withhold comment at this time to avoid even the appearance that I might influence this investigation."
The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, which are in the midst of a broad investigation of corruption in Alaska, would not comment.
"This is a pending investigation and we're just not going to confirm or deny any aspect, any rumors, any allegations out there," said FBI spokesman Eric Gonzalez.
Ted Stevens, the most senior Republican in the U.S. Senate and Alaska's most famous political figure, has not been directly connected with the corruption investigation.
The wide-ranging federal inquiry surfaced in August when agents raided six legislative offices, including those of then-Senate President Ben Stevens, one of Ted Stevens' sons. The FBI said at the time that it also had executed a search warrant in Girdwood, among other places, although the location of that search has never been officially disclosed.
Veco, an oil-field service company that has long been a strong lobbying presence in Juneau, was one of the early targets of the agents, according to some of the search warrants that became public. On May 7, the company's longtime chief executive, Bill Allen, and a vice president, Rick Smith, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy, bribery and tax charges. They are now cooperating with authorities.
The investigation spread to the commercial fishing industry, including Ben Stevens' consulting clients and associates. Federal subpoenas served on fishing companies in Seattle last year sought records concerning both Ben and Ted Stevens.
Four current or former Alaska state lawmakers have been indicted and are awaiting trial on corruption charges, and an Anchorage lobbyist has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
Ben Stevens has not been charged. But the charges pleaded to by Allen and Smith alleged Ben Stevens improperly accepted $242,000 from Veco for "giving advice, lobbying colleagues, and taking official acts in matters before the legislature."
How the Girdwood home fits in with the broader investigation, or what possible crimes are being investigated, is not clear. There was a brief, unexplained reference to residential remodeling in the government's statement of facts that accompanied Allen's and Smith's guilty pleas. The sentence, preceded by a listing of a dozen Veco-related enterprises around the world, said: "Veco was not in the business of residential construction or remodeling."
Asked whether that line related to the construction at Stevens' Girdwood home, Persons first said, "I'm sure it does." When pressed, he said he wasn't certain.
Augie Paone, owner of Christensen Builders Inc. of Anchorage, said in a recent interview that it was Bill Allen who hired him to complete the framing and most of the interior carpentry at Stevens' home. Before he could send a bill to Stevens for work in progress, he was directed to provide it first to Veco, where someone would examine it for accuracy, he said. When Veco approved the invoice, he would fax it to the Stevenses in Washington, he said.
Paone said that as far as he knew, Stevens and his wife, Catherine, paid his bills themselves. He said he sent at least $100,000 in invoices to the Stevenses in Washington. They paid him from what he said appeared to be a checking account opened for the project. The checks, imprinted with the couple's names, had single- and double-digit serial numbers, he said.
According to Paone and other contractors, the renovation involved a technique often used with older dwellings in Girdwood -- jacking up a single-story house, building another floor on the original foundation or pilings, then lowering the original structure onto the new one. The result is a two-story home.
City and state records show the Stevens home was originally built in 1971. Catherine and Ted Stevens purchased it in August 1983. Plans show the house had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a single bath before the 2000 expansion.
Toney Hannah, a house mover from Anchorage, said he had initial discussions about a jack-up project with Ted and Catherine Stevens in 1999 but didn't hear any more about it until the next summer.
On July 26, 2000, Stevens faxed a letter to Anchorage building safety officials, saying Persons had authority to act in his and Catherine's name "in regard to construction at my house in Girdwood."
Stevens often relied on Persons to look after his Girdwood residence, according to Stevens' long-term neighbor there, Julie Peterson. She said she would call Persons if she saw a problem at the house.
Stevens and Persons also have a business relationship. Persons is the managing partner of Alaska's Great Eagle LLC, a racehorse-owning partnership that includes Stevens, Bill Allen and Allen's son Mark, along with several other Alaska businessmen.
On July 31, 2000, Persons obtained an Anchorage land-use permit for the Stevens remodeling. He listed the value of construction as $84,878 -- much less than the actual total turned out to be.
Most of the tradesmen who worked on the project couldn't be identified to answer questions from the Daily News about how they were hired, paid and supervised. While Girdwood is within the Anchorage municipality, its local building rules are more lax. With no inspections required, city building records don't name the electrician, plumber, furnace installer or others who may have worked on the project.
Hannah, the house mover, was found because Persons originally listed him in the permit file as the contractor.
Hannah said Persons contacted him in July or August 2000 to start the project. His crew jacked up the home. Hannah said Persons seemed to be in a hurry to get the job done.
A framing crew went to work on the first floor. But Hannah said that when he returned to Girdwood to lower the house, the framing was unacceptable, forcing him to delay the next phase. He said he didn't know who did the faulty carpentry.
Paone said he was called in late that summer to rescue the project.
"Bill Allen and some of the Veco boys, some of the Veco guys, were the ones that approached me and wanted to know if I could give them a hand," Paone said. "I did it more as a favor, you know. It's one of those things when somebody is the head, and packs that much power and asks you for a favor, it's kind of hard to say no."
Paone said his name was on file at Veco because he had worked as a carpenter remodeling a Veco office building in Anchorage several years before. He had also remodeled the basement of the home of Veco's chief financial officer, Roger Chan. Chan and Allen both asked him to work on Stevens' home, he said.
Chan didn't return a phone call seeking comment and Veco's lawyer, Amy Menard, said the company's agreement to cooperate with federal authorities barred her and officials from talking.
Like Hannah, Paone said he didn't know who botched the framing.
"My understanding is that there was just a bunch of guys trying to do it on a weekend basis, and mostly they were friends of the senator's or something," he said. "But they didn't know what they were doing and they were so far behind that there was absolutely no way they could have completed it by late October, early November," he said.
Paone took over the framing and completed the interior walls, some of the cabinetry in the kitchen, the insulation and painting. He purchased the supplies and sent invoices for materials and labor to Stevens.
Paone said he couldn't recall the names of other tradesmen who worked on the project -- electricians, plumbers and a mechanical contractor who installed a new gas furnace and the forced-air heating system. A neighbor said someone brought over a crane to hoist Stevens' barbecue grill to the second floor deck. Another neighbor said a cherry picker showed up to install decorative lights on the eaves.
Paone said that by the time he finished his work in late October or early November, he had sent Stevens more than $100,000 in invoices for his own work.
Paone said he charged normal rates but was uncomfortable with the arrangements because he hadn't provided an estimate before starting the work. He said he protected himself by retaining all the records on the project.
"I didn't suspect anything, but I just wanted to make sure," he said. "When you work with a house of a legislator or a senator, you make sure you hold on to all the billings, just in case something happens."
Current city property records show the 10-room home contains 2,471 square feet of living space. With its quarter-acre lot, its assessed value for 2007 is $440,900.
Last year, some six years after the project was completed, Paone said, "the FBI came over to me and I gave them all the paperwork I had on it." When he was questioned by the FBI, he said, agents seemed particularly interested in Veco and its officials. The government already had copies of most of his invoices on the Stevens home, having obtained them from Veco files, he said.
Paone said he followed that up by testifying before a federal grand jury in December.
About a year ago, Hannah, the house mover, came to work at his yard in South Anchorage and found an FBI agent's card on his office door, he said. When he called the agent, he was told the government was going to subpoena his records on the project. He said he sent his father downtown with all the files. He hasn't gotten them back, he said.
He said Catherine Stevens had paid his bill with a check, but he said it happened too long ago to remember details.
The contractor who did earth-moving for the project, Bob Redmond of Girdwood, also provided his records to the FBI, according to Jean Redmond, his stepmother. She also said the bills were paid by Stevens.
Paone said that as far as he knows, Stevens paid every invoice sent to him.
"Now, I'm not sure if everything was given to him," Paone said. "It's just that he was never around. He didn't know what was going on. My personal opinion is that if he got something for nothing, he absolutely didn't know about it."
Persons, of the Double Musky, said he believes Stevens has done nothing wrong, though he was unable to say what he knows.
"It's a very sad situation," he said during the brief interview outside a bank in South Anchorage. "I have to tell you that my attorneys have told me not to talk to anyone. And I can't even talk to my friends. Anybody. I can't talk to anybody."
Persons said he didn't think he was in any legal trouble.
"I don't know why I would be," he said.
"To me, it's a tragic situation," Persons added. "I don't think Sen. Stevens has done anything wrong and I don't know what's going on. I think it's a witch hunt."
Contact reporter Richard Mauer at 257-4345 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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