Shortfalls Unraveled Stevens's Conviction
Sunday, April 12, 2009
The Justice Department team charged with prosecuting former senator Ted Stevens miscalculated by not seeking more time to prepare for the high-stakes corruption trial and fell victim to inexperience and thin staffing, which contributed to its alleged mishandling of witnesses and evidence, according to interviews with more than a dozen lawyers who followed the case.
Last year's compressed trial timeline forced government lawyers to jam their preparations into seven weeks and intensified a series of challenges: the late addition of a new lawyer; an aggressive adversary who deluged them with requests for documents; and a skeptical judge whose behavior turned unpredictable, then punitive.
The difficulties led U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan last week to dismiss a conviction against Stevens, a Republican who represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate for nearly 40 years, and to turn the tables and initiate a criminal probe of six of the prosecutors.
Former prosecutors, defense lawyers and onetime Justice Department officials also described more chronic liabilities in the department's Public Integrity Section: Once the "A Team" for fighting corruption in state legislatures, judges' chambers and Congress, the unit in recent years lost staffing, strong supervision, some of its varnish and its insulation from politics.
Only days after the case against Stevens collapsed, lawyers inside and outside the department were chronicling its demise and picking apart the skill of the prosecution team, at least one of whose members had watched cases fall apart in the past. But government officials and defense attorneys alike said they do not think that prosecutors in the Public Integrity Section or its leaders acted out of base political motivations.
The Justice Department, already laboring under well-documented episodes of political interference during the Bush years, is now facing intense scrutiny over whether it flouted the rules in one of the highest-profile cases of the past decade.
Prosecutors and FBI agents are hiring their own lawyers and pointing the finger at one another, even as a special prosecutor and the department's ethics watchdogs are trying to determine whether members of the team broke the law to cheat their way to victory or merely succumbed to lapses of incompetence, inexperience or lax supervision.
The six members of the prosecution team declined to comment or did not return phone calls and e-mail messages left with them and their friends. But department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the unit has a solid record, having secured nearly 400 convictions since 2001.
"For more than 30 years, the Public Integrity Section has been effectively prosecuting public officials, regardless of political affiliation, who abuse their office and their obligation to the American people," Sweeney said. "Every day, in courtrooms nationwide, these prosecutors work under challenging circumstances to hold our public officials accountable for their conduct, and they will continue to do so."
The very nature of the section's mandate, to target corruption across the country, has posed recurrent challenges.
Former department attorneys, for example, cited chronic problems that have plagued the unit: competition and confusion with partner prosecutors in U.S. attorney's offices around the country. Federal prosecutors in the District, for instance, were consulted about the Stevens case starting in 2006 but declined to participate, thinking that the charges were shaky, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The assistant U.S. attorneys also considered overly aggressive the prosecutors' early plan, later abandoned, to get a warrant to search the lawmaker's D.C. area home, the sources said.
The government's path could have been eased had the U.S. attorney's office been part of the case, adding players who were familiar with the courthouse and the personality of the trial judge.