An administrative law judge has overturned the suspension of two federal prosecutors accused of misconduct in the botched corruption case that helped bring down the late Sen. Ted Stevens during his last reelection bid.
The Justice Department last year suspended assistant U.S. attorneys Joseph Bottini and James Goeke for 40 days and 15 days, respectively, after determining the two prosecutors had withheld information that could have exonerated Stevens, an Alaska Republican who died in a plane crash in 2010.
Benjamin Gutman, a judge with the Merit Systems Protection Board, overturned the suspension for procedural violations last week, saying the Justice Department had violated its own protocol in suspending Bottini and Goeke. He did not rule on the merits of the disciplinary actions against the two prosecutors.
The Justice Department requires a rank-and-file attorney to decide whether prosecutors have engaged in professional misconduct. Gutman determined that the agency veered from that rule when a managing attorney suspended Bottini and Goeke despite a lower-level attorney concluding that their alleged mistakes did not meet the standard for misconduct.
The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the suspended prosecutors.
“Our greatest concern was that the two lowest-ranking members of the prosecution team were made the fall guys in this case,” said Bruce Moyer, who serves as counsel for the group.
The association’s president, Robert Gay Guthrie, said in a statement that the judge’s decision on Friday reinforces the notion that “government agencies must follow their own rules” and that “fairness begins at home.”
The Justice Department can appeal the judge’s ruling to the three-member Merit Systems Protection Board.
Justice spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said the department is reviewing the matter. She declined to comment further.
Stevens, one of the longest-serving Republican senators in U.S. history and a lawmaker who often broke ranks with his own party to support federal workers, was charged with making false statements to conceal $250,000 in home-renovation payments from an oil-services firm. He lost his 2008 reelection bid just days after his conviction, giving Democrats the filibuster-proof Senate majority they needed to pass an overhaul of the nation’s health-care system.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked the administrative judge to rescind the verdict in 2009 after determining that Justice Department attorneys had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.
Stevens died in a 2010 plane crash that denied the former senator a chance to reclaim his seat after the verdict was thrown out.