By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Two months after prosecutors abandoned the criminal conviction of former senator Ted Stevens, the Justice Department unit that polices public corruption remains in chaos, coping with newly discovered evidence that threatens to undermine other cases while department leaders struggle to reshuffle the ranks.
William Welch and Brenda Morris, senior managers in the department's Public Integrity Section who supervised the case against the Alaska Republican, have been moved into other roles following the transfer this month of two of their subordinates, who worked on lengthy investigations of Alaskan influence peddling, according to four sources.
At the same time, document-sharing lapses that provoked the Stevens turnaround are also affecting other bribery prosecutions in the state, prompting authorities to take the extraordinary step of releasing two Alaska lawmakers from prison late last week. A new team of government lawyers and FBI agents is reviewing thousands of pages of evidence, trying to assuage the concerns of judges and fielding complaints from defense attorneys.
The developments represent a continuing distraction inside the Justice Department, where new leaders had vowed to restore morale in the career ranks after allegations of political interference during the Bush era, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Before the Stevens debacle, the public integrity unit had been handling a full slate of complex investigations that involved Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), Rep. Jack John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and former representative John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), among others.
Now, even as prosecutors from the unit are fighting an internal department ethics probe and a separate criminal inquiry launched by the trial judge in the Stevens case, some of their targets are enjoying their freedom.
Stevens, who lost a reelection battle just days after his conviction last November, is considering penning a book about his six terms in office. Peter Kott, former Republican speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, and Victor Kohring, a veteran Republican legislator there, returned from prison Thursday and reunited with their families after nearly a year.
Both Kott and Kohring appeared yesterday in an Anchorage courtroom, where a judge ruled they could remain free on personal recognizance. U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick had directed the government to "advise the court and defendant of the status of its investigation of discovery violations by the United States' previous counsel."
New members of the prosecution team told the judge that they would finish sharing previously unproduced materials by July 31. Already, defense attorneys for the former Alaska legislators have secured scores of pages of newly disclosed materials from the government on the condition that they keep the documents secret.
John Henry Browne, an attorney for Kohring, said he was expecting a dozen or so documents but instead is sorting through a stack of more than 1,000 pages.
"There are a number of smoking guns in here," Browne said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Justice Department sometimes dismisses these cases" rather than expose the former prosecutors to cross examination about their alleged failure to share documents.
Department sources said no decisions had been made about how to proceed in the Kott and Kohring cases.
"Even with the challenges of the past several months, every day in the Public Integrity Section an elite group of prosecutors work tirelessly and effectively to fight public corruption across the country," spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
"It is serious and disturbing that the government -- the party that was claiming to attack public corruption -- was the party that actually withheld these stacks of documents from the defense and the public," said Sheryl Gordon McCloud, an attorney for Kott.
Lawyers representing other targets of the five-year-long Alaska corruption probe known as "Operation Polar Pen" report receiving hundreds of pages of materials from newly installed prosecutors in recent days.
Douglas Pope, who is defending former Alaska representative Bruce Weyhrauch (R), said he met last week with an "entirely new team of prosecutors and an FBI agent" who "started producing a bunch of discovery that should have been produced before the trial."
Since early April, when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. publicly condemned the lapses as inexcusable, attorneys for public officials in other cases have raised allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. With that backdrop, lawyers in the department's Criminal Division, led by Associate Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, earlier this month transferred prosecutors Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan out of the public integrity unit. The decision was controversial at the department because the internal probe was at an early stage and because supervisors remained on the job.
William Welch, the chief of the Public Integrity Section, and Morris, his principal deputy, have continued to work on cases since the transfer of two of their subordinates, but as an administrative review continues, they no longer have management responsibility, the sources said. Other lawyers in the section have taken on supervisory roles in specific cases.
Sources said that among the questions investigators are pursuing is how closely the work of the Stevens trial team was supervised by officials in the Criminal Division. Senior political and career lawyers there may have offered input and monitored decisions about the kinds of material to turn over to Stevens's defense team at Williams & Connolly, the sources added. Senior officials at the department also made decisions about the composition of the trial team, adding Morris, who had more courtroom experience, only weeks before the trial.
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.