By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008
A federal judge refused yesterday to dismiss charges against Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), ruling that Stevens's corruption trial can proceed despite the prosecution's belated disclosure of information that could aid his defense.
After a surprise revelation Wednesday night that Justice Department lawyers had not disclosed the potentially exculpatory information, the ruling followed a hearing on the matter late yesterday.
"Although the court is persuaded there is a . . . violation, the court is not persuaded that dismissal of the indictment or mistrial is the appropriate remedy," said U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. He added that the government's actions had broken his trust in the prosecutors and ordered them to give Stevens's attorneys copies of all witness interviews.
"The court has no confidence in the government's ability" to meet its obligations to ensure a fair trial, he said.
Stevens, 84, is charged with failing to disclose on Senate financial documents that an energy company executive who contributed to his campaigns also extensively renovated Stevens's Alaska home without charging him for all of the work.
The potentially exculpatory material involves remarks by the executive, Bill Allen, a key prosecution witness, to FBI agents that he believed Stevens would have paid for the renovations if Allen had billed him. Attorneys for the government did not disclose those remarks to the defense until late Wednesday.
The chief of now-defunct Veco is a longtime friend of Stevens's and had sought the senator's help with company projects. Stevens, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate is running for reelection to a seventh full term.
Sullivan said Allen's information is not entirely new -- prosecutors had previously summarized his views in a September letter to the defense -- and noted that the defense can stress it when Stevens's attorneys cross-examine Allen.
But Sullivan ruled that government prosecutors had violated a critical requirement that they turn over potentially helpful information to the defense. Prosecutors said they would report Sullivan's finding to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which could begin an investigation of the government legal team.
In court this morning, prosecutor Brenda Morris acknowledged that the information should have been provided earlier. "We admit we made a gross error, your honor," Morris said. ". . . But there is no harm to the defendant."
Stevens's defense attorneys repeatedly called for the court to dismiss the indictment against their client or declare a mistrial. They accused government prosecutors of behavior that constituted either a pattern of negligence or intentional sabotage of the defense.
"Our position is it's broken and can't be fixed, your honor," said defense attorney Robert Cary. "We've been in this trial for too long now on an uneven playing field."
Sullivan stressed that he remained "very disturbed" that government lawyers had blacked-out the statement from Allen when turning over evidence to the defense.
"I want an answer," the judge said to Morris. "How does the court have any confidence that the public integrity section has any integrity?"
It was the second time this week that Sullivan has criticized prosecutors. On Monday, he said he was "flabbergasted" that the government had allowed a potentially important witness to return to Alaska even though he had been subpoenaed to testify. Defense attorneys said the witness could have helped their case.
Sullivan offered to give Stevens's attorneys time to prepare the rest of their defense, or to give new opening statements emphasizing the information they had recently learned. Both offers were rejected, and the trial is scheduled to resume Monday.