Justice Department Aims to Prevent Another Stevens Fiasco
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Justice Department leaders are pressing ahead with reforms to prevent lapses by prosecutors in sharing evidence in criminal cases, a series of changes spurred by failures that led the federal government to take a highly unusual step earlier this year and abandon the conviction of former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
The reforms come as new allegations emerge that cast doubt on the credibility of the key witness in the Alaska political corruption scandals, including the botched prosecution of Stevens.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer outlined in an interview and at a judges' meeting in Seattle this week the fresh safeguards, such as new training programs for federal prosecutors on their evidence-sharing obligations and the hiring of an official at headquarters to review the process.
"The Department of Justice is committed to the very highest ethical standards," Breuer said. "But we just don't believe there is a widespread pattern of prosecutorial misconduct. We do believe there can be error" when lawyers receive millions of pages of documents from federal agencies and defense attorneys in the course of complex cases.
Other changes include the appointment of a senior lawyer to handle evidence-sharing issues at each U.S. attorney's office across the country and a pilot project to determine how to best corral information from multiple sources.
The announcements closely follow a hard-edged court filing by attorneys for Pete Kott (R), a former Alaska state representative who is asking a judge to reverse his corruption conviction because prosecutors, including some from the same team that faced off against Stevens, did not turn over incendiary information about a critical witness, onetime oil-services company chief Bill Allen.
Allen, the key cooperator in several public corruption trials, allegedly engaged in multiple sexual relationships with underage women, one of whom he may have persuaded to file a false sworn statement about the nature of their contact, Kott's attorney said in the filing. The allegations came under investigation by police in Alaska and were disclosed in thousands of pages of documents the Justice Department shared under court seal with Kott and former state House official Victor H. Kohring (R), but not until they had been convicted. In an extraordinary step, Kott and Kohring were released from prison after a department request this year.
Much of the same information was disclosed to the Stevens team before his conviction.
Sheryl Gordon McCloud, an attorney for Kott, said the information about possible violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits the transport of people across state lines for sex, would have helped a jury evaluate Allen's credibility as the central witness against her client. In a court filing, McCloud also pointed to inconsistencies in Allen's testimony about cash payments, home repairs and promises of future employment he made to state officials, allegedly in exchange for legislative favors.
The material also sheds new light on prosecutors' struggles to figure out what was required to be shared with a defendant under the law and how to wrangle their difficult witness, whom one prosecutor described in an e-mail at the time thus: "like mercury on a plate glass window. We won't know what we'll get until he takes the stand."
George Terwilliger III, an attorney for Allen, said that his client's cooperation was "complete, consistent and truthful over a period of years" and that he provided "valuable assistance" to prosecutors. Spokesman Robert Bork Jr. called the new allegations a "smokescreen by people with a vested interest in discrediting Mr. Allen's truthful testimony about their own wrongdoing."
The government deadline for responding to Kott's motion expires next week, but multiple sources said authorities would fight any effort to wipe out the conviction, which relied in part on videotaped evidence of alleged bribery.
Breuer declared support for the "overwhelming majority" of government lawyers who follow the rules, including lawyers in the department's public integrity section. He reported that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) had investigated 107 allegations of evidence-sharing lapses since 2000, concluding that department lawyers had committed professional misconduct in 15 cases. During that period, the Justice Department filed criminal charges in about 680,000 cases.
The federal Judicial Conference Advisory Committee took up the evidence issue at the behest of Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who presided over the Stevens case and who wrote to the panel in April urging it to consider modifying a federal rule to expand prosecutors' duties to disclosing information that could help exonerate a defendant or cross-examine government witnesses. No decision by the advisory panel is imminent.
Ethics investigators at the OPR are conducting interviews with people involved in the Alaska cases, and prominent lawyer Henry Schuelke, appointed by Sullivan, is leading a criminal probe of evidence violations by the Stevens trial team. He has not yet interviewed the six central figures in the case, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
Meanwhile, Brenda Morris, the lead prosecutor in the Stevens trial, recently left her post as deputy chief of the public integrity unit to voluntarily move to Atlanta. William Welch, who leads the section, remains in place as the office pursues a full plate of investigations, including a grand jury probe of former interior secretary Gale Norton, inquiries into the awarding of earmarks by members of the House and fallout from the guilty plea by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Allen, whose work at the oil-services giant Veco made him famous in Alaska, is scheduled to be sentenced this month after pleading guilty to three felonies in 2007. "Allen's crimes are significant ones which involve the integrity of the criminal process in the state of Alaska," Judge John W. Sedwick wrote in July. "The community has a substantial interest in seeing the imposition of punishment for these crimes without delay."