Ethics lapses dog prosecutors of Stevens' corruption trial

A federal judge dismissed the former senator's conviction Tuesday and ordered an independent probe into the conduct of six Justice Department lawyers.

Susan Walsh/AP
Former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, accompanied by his family, left federal court in Washington on Tuesday after a judge set aside his conviction on ethics violations, because of prosecutors' alleged misconduct.

A high-profile corruption case against former US Sen. Ted Stevens ended Tuesday with his conviction dismissed – and an angry warning from a federal judge to future US prosecutors to play by the rules.

Mr. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in US history, walked out of a federal courtroom packed with former staffers as a free man and with the October verdict against him wiped off the books.

Six federal lawyers now face criminal contempt proceedings for the way in which they handled the case.

“In nearly 25 years on the bench, I have never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct I have seen in this case,” said US District Judge Emmett Sullivan at Tuesday’s hearing.

The judge cited, in particular, prosecutors' failure to abide by rules that require the government to turn over to the defense team information that could help their client's case.

Turning over potentially exculpatory material used to be customary practice among federal prosecutors, but that began to shift in the 1980s, say some defense attorneys, commenting on the case. The Stevens case – and the prospect of contempt proceedings against the prosecutors – could change that.

“It is often said that the criminal must go free because the constable blundered. It’s rare to go free because the prosecutors blundered,” says Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School. “There’s no question that Senator Stevens was not given a fair trial.”

Sullivan has assigned a special prosecutor to conduct the probe, concluding that the allegations of wrongdoing are too serious to be left to an internal Justice Department investigation. He tapped Washington lawyer Henry Schuelke for the job and ordered the Justice Department to make available relevant documents.

The outcome was the latest blow to the US Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, which oversees corruption investigations against public officials. Once a crown jewel in the Justice Department, it has come under fire on Capitol Hill and in federal courts in recent years for misconduct and politically motivated prosecutions.

It also marks a bid by the new team at the Justice Department to break with policies and practices of the Bush years. After a review of the case, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that “certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial.”

On Oct. 27, a jury convicted Stevens on seven felony counts for failing to disclose some $250,000 in gifts, mainly home improvements, from an oil services company. A week later, Stevens lost his reelection bid for an eighth term by 3,724 votes.

“The court concurs that it is in the interest of justice that the verdict be set aside,” said Sullivan, who presided over the original five-week trial.

He credited the “absolutely amazing [new] team” at the Justice Department with how quickly they were able to “get a grip on the case,” including notes from an April 15, 2008, interview with a key witness that would have been helpful to the defense.

“My aim from the beginning was to afford this defendant, like any other defendant, his fair day in court, and that day has arrived,” Sullivan said.

But from Day 1 of this case, Stevens – then one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington – was not just any other defendant.

At an oversight hearing last month, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, citing the Stevens prosecution, asked Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller if there were checks in place to ensure that “your FBI agents don’t overstep and act inappropriately because of their desire to get a so-called big target.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Mueller said.

Advocates of stricter ethics laws in government worry that the outcome could discourage future high-level prosecutions.

“The prosecutors behaved unconscionably, so it’s appropriate to have the judge take the very unusual step of appointing someone himself to pursue the investigation,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which led calls for the Senate ethics committee to investigate Stevens for corruption. “But not only is Stevens going around telling people that he is innocent, the Justice Department is going to be cowed now. There's a huge chilling effect on future corruption prosecutions.”

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