By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009
Justice Department officials yesterday took the rare step of asking a court to release from prison two convicted Alaska state legislators after a review of their corruption cases appeared to uncover lapses of the sort that helped derail the prosecution of the state's long-serving Republican senator, Ted Stevens.
Late yesterday, department officials moved to send the cases of Victor Kohring and Peter Kott, convicted in 2007 and serving multi-year prison terms for bribery and extortion, back to a federal court in Alaska. They also asked the court to release both men on personal recognizance while the cases await resolution, a move that former prosecutors and criminal law experts called extremely unusual.
Kohring and Kott earlier this year asked to be freed from prison while they pursued an appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit denied their requests after concluding they had not raised legal issues important enough to merit release.
In court filings yesterday, prosecutors said that, while a review of the evidence-sharing practices in the cases was not yet complete, enough questions had been raised to merit another look from the trial court.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered special scrutiny of other Alaska public corruption prosecutions earlier this year after a federal judge in the District sanctioned government lawyers for failing to share evidence that could have helped Stevens advance his defense. Justice Department authorities launched an ongoing ethics investigation of their prosecutors on the trial team and eventually abandoned the Stevens conviction altogether in April.
In a statement, Holder said yesterday that "after a careful review of these cases, I have determined that it appears that the department did not provide information that should have been disclosed to the defense."
The decision to reconsider the cases of the two Alaska lawmakers, who were captured on audio and videotape allegedly accepting improper payments in exchange for helping executives at an oil services company, is all but certain to focus fresh attention on the department's troubled public integrity section.
The once-elite band of prosecutors is fending off attacks from defense lawyers seeking to exploit the Stevens case to help their clients. And several of the section's lawyers, including chief William M. Welch III, principal deputy Brenda Morris, and lawyers Nicholas A. Marsh and Edward P. Sullivan, are the subjects of investigations by a federal judge and the department's ethics watchdogs.
Welch and Morris played only supervisory roles in the Kohring and Kott cases. But Marsh and Sullivan, along with Joseph W. Bottini and James A. Goeke, two Alaska-based prosecutors who worked on the Stevens case, appear on court documents and news releases connected to the state lawmakers.
Marsh attorney Robert D. Luskin said in an e-mail that he remains "completely confident that any scrutiny of these matters by anyone will ultimately establish that Nick Marsh acted fairly and ethically."
The other defense attorneys either declined to comment or did not return messages yesterday.