Prosecutors in Stevens case face questioning
Friday, December 4, 2009
The special prosecutor investigating whether criminal contempt statutes were violated in the government's botched case against Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has scheduled interviews with the six Justice Department lawyers at the center of the episode, according to three sources familiar with the effort.
Henry F. Schuelke III, named to the assignment this year by a U.S. district judge who oversaw the Stevens case, is nearing the end of his investigation and already has sifted through thousands of documents related to the prosecution, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is still underway.
The interviews are expected to conclude by the end of January. They may help Schuelke determine whether prosecutors did not share critical evidence with the Stevens defense in an effort to hide material, or because of sloppy mistakes by a government team burdened by tight deadlines and inexperience.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in April took the extraordinary step of dropping the public corruption case against Stevens, one of the department's biggest efforts over the past decade, after reviewing irregularities in the prosecution's approach to sharing evidence and witness statements.
The episode has prompted new training efforts for the department's prosecutors, and influential judges have called for changes in the rules governing the exchange of information between the government and defendants. Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a report this week that restoring confidence after the Stevens debacle amounted to one of the department's highest challenges.
In recent months, several Justice Department lawyers who worked on the prosecution or managed it have shifted into other jobs.
William H. Welch II, chief of the department's public integrity unit, moved to Springfield, Mass., last month to pursue public corruption cases there. Brenda Morris, a deputy who served as the lead prosecutor against Stevens, relocated to Atlanta for personal reasons. And two junior members of the trial team, Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan, have been transferred to the department's international affairs unit, at least temporarily. Two other lawyers on the case, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, continue to work as assistant U.S. attorneys in Alaska.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of attorney misconduct, also is conducting a review of the handling of the Stevens case and other Alaska corruption prosecutions. Interviews with key actors in that effort have been held in abeyance until Schuelke finishes interviews for his criminal probe, as is customary.
Whether Schuelke's investigation will touch others at the Justice Department who may have provided oversight of the Stevens case remains unclear.
In naming a special prosecutor, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan identified six people to be scrutinized -- members of the prosecution team and the chief of the public integrity unit. Other leaders at the department's criminal division weighed in on the case from time to time, especially after the judge began to complain in the course of last year's trial about evidentiary problems, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
New officials at the Justice Department this year sifted through files and provided documents and e-mail about the case to Schuelke and the subjects of his investigation. But the criteria they used for sharing electronic messages may not have captured all the communications involving people in the criminal division or other areas of the department's front office about the Stevens case, the sources said. Officials turned over only e-mail in which at least two of the six Stevens prosecutors were included as addressees, they said.