Holder Asks Judge to Drop Case Against Ex-Senator Stevens
Thursday, April 2, 2009
During the corruption trial of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, federal prosecutors were chastised by a judge for letting a witness leave town. They got in trouble for submitting erroneous evidence and were reprimanded for failing to turn over key witness statements. An FBI agent has since complained about the prosecution team's alleged misconduct.
Yesterday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he had had enough. The Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to drop the case after learning that prosecutors had failed to turn over notes that contradicted testimony from their key witness.
The discovery by a fresh team of lawyers and their acknowledgment that the material should have been shared with Stevens's defense team led Holder, a former public corruption prosecutor, to conclude that the department's biggest public corruption case in a decade could not be salvaged.
Holder's decision invites tough new scrutiny of a unit that polices corrupt officials, and it could foreshadow a shakeup in the way the government prosecutes those crimes, according to lawyers who work on such cases.
Current and former department lawyers predict an overhaul that will sweep aside senior leaders in the Public Integrity Section, two of whom were cited for contempt of court by the Stevens trial judge. That ruling triggered an internal ethics probe that has produced an awkward situation in which prosecutors and FBI agents who worked side by side on the case are pointing fingers at each other, sources said.
The Public Integrity Section in recent years has lagged in personnel and investigative firepower, veterans of the office say. Its work has produced acquittals and second-guessing from judges, which may intensify after the Stevens debacle.
Stevens issued a statement saying he is "grateful that the new team of responsible prosecutors at the Department of Justice has acknowledged that I did not receive a fair trial and has dismissed all the charges against me."
Holder's decision could also benefit another Alaska politician, Rep. Don Young (R), who is the subject of a corruption probe. Inconsistencies by witnesses in the Stevens case could make prosecutors reluctant to use those same witnesses -- oil services company executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith -- in any case against Young.
And other ongoing investigations of members of Congress -- probes that have already been slowed by problems with collecting evidence and protecting lawmakers' constitutional privileges -- could grow more painstaking with additional oversight by department brass who want to avoid a repeat of the Stevens case.
Defense lawyers who represent public officials already are seeking to exploit the government's problems to help their clients accused of political corruption, three of those lawyers said yesterday.
Stevens, 85, was convicted in October, eight days before Election Day, of seven counts of making false statements on financial disclosure forms to hide about $250,000 in gifts and free renovations to his Alaska house. The Justice Department filing yesterday means that he can no longer be prosecuted on any charges stemming from those allegations.
On Capitol Hill, outrage was palpable among Republicans who believe the case cost them a Senate seat. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, "No question that, if this decision had been made last year, he'd still be in the Senate."