The Ted Stevens Case Says More About the Justice Department Than the Ex-Senator

Thursday, April 2, 2009

TED STEVENS should be jumping for joy. The Justice Department Wednesday announced that it would ask a judge to dismiss the conviction of the former Alaska Republican senator, who was tried last year on charges of failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from an Alaska oil services firm and its former chief executive, among others. The government also announced that it would not seek to retry Mr. Stevens, 85, who lost a reelection bid last November.

Yet this extraordinary reversal cannot erase or forgive the ugly behavior that gave rise to the indictment in the first place. Trial records and testimony painted a picture of a man so consumed with his own sense of entitlement that he did not think twice about accepting such expensive freebies as a Viking gas grill, a vibrating Shiatsu massage lounger and a five-foot sculpture of migrating salmon -- not to mention extensive plumbing, electrical and carpentry work on his "chalet" in Girdwood, Alaska. All told, the government calculated that Mr. Stevens took gifts worth in excess of $250,000.

Gross breaches of law and fairness by prosecutors are the reason that Mr. Stevens will walk free. The Justice Department admitted that the lawyers from the Public Integrity Section who put Mr. Stevens on trial failed to turn over to defense lawyers information about contradictory statements by a key prosecution witness. An agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who worked on the case also recently alleged that prosecutors had been willfully withholding pertinent evidence from the defense team.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ably presided over the trial and several times castigated the prosecutors for similar failures. He held four prosecutors in contempt of court this year and was considering further action when the Justice Department declared its intention to drop the case against Mr. Stevens.

The decision could not have been easy for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who cut his teeth as a prosecutor in the very same Public Integrity Section. But it was the right call. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the trial prosecutors, and, although such proceedings are typically not made public, the department has agreed to share the results with Judge Sullivan. The department should also consider making them available to the public, which is entitled to know whether law enforcement officers gamed the system to guarantee a conviction.

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