By Nedra Pickler
Saturday, February 14, 2009
An angry federal judge held Justice Department lawyers in contempt yesterday for failing to deliver documents to former senator Ted Stevens's legal team, as he had ordered.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called it "outrageous" that government lawyers would ignore his deadline for turning over documents.
Last month, Sullivan told the Justice Department to turn over all its internal communications regarding a whistleblower complaint against the FBI agent leading the investigation into the former Alaska senator. The agent, Chad Joy, complained about some Justice Department tactics during the trial, including not turning over evidence, and an "inappropriate relationship" between another agent working the case and the prosecution's star witness.
Stevens was convicted in October of lying on Senate disclosure documents about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations from an Alaska businessman. In November, the Republican lost his bid for reelection to the Senate seat he had held since 1968.
Stevens and his lawyers complained during the trial about prosecutors withholding information. In December, they asked for his conviction to be tossed out. As part of their request, they asked for the documents related to Joy.
During yesterday's hearing, Sullivan repeatedly asked three Justice Department lawyers sitting at the prosecution's table whether they had some reason not to turn over the documents. They finally acknowledged they did not, and Sullivan exploded in anger.
"That was a court order," he bellowed. "That wasn't a request. I didn't ask for them out of the kindness of your hearts. . . . Isn't the Department of Justice taking court orders seriously these days?"
He said he did not want to get "sidetracked" by deciding a sanction immediately and would deal with their punishment later. But he ordered them to produce the material by the end of the day.
"That's outrageous for the Department of Justice -- the largest law firm on the planet," he said. "That is not acceptable in this court."
Sullivan held all three lawyers at the table in contempt and demanded repeatedly to know who else was involved in withholding the information. Another government lawyer sitting in the back of the courtroom stood up and gave her name.
Judges rarely hold prosecutors in contempt.
The most notable recent case occurred in September 2007, when a North Carolina judge jailed prosecutor Mike Nifong for one day on a contempt charge for lying during the rape case against Duke lacrosse players.
But sanctioning federal prosecutors is even more unusual. A Washington bankruptcy judge did so in 1987, ruling that the Justice Department unlawfully tried to put a financially troubled computer firm out of business. In 1995, a federal judge in Texas held a prosecutor in contempt for refusing to provide him information that had been sealed by another judge.