WASHINGTON — A seething federal judge dismissed the corruption conviction of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens on Tuesday and took the rare and serious step of ordering a criminal investigation into prosecutors who poisoned the case.
“In nearly 25 years on the bench, I’ve never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I’ve seen in this case,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said.
Sullivan appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Justice Department lawyers who repeatedly withheld evidence from defense attorneys and the judge during the monthlong trial. Stevens was convicted in October of lying on Senate forms about home renovations and gifts he received from wealthy friends.
The case cost Stevens, 85, a Senate seat he had held for 40 years. Once the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, he narrowly lost to Democrat Mark Begich soon after the verdict.
Now, the case could prove career-ending for prosecutors in the Justice Department’s public corruption unit.
As Sullivan dismissed the case, Stevens turned to his friends and held up a fist in victory as his wife and daughters broke into loud sobs.
“Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system, was unwavering,” Stevens told the court Tuesday, his first public comments since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would drop the case. “But what some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed.”
Sullivan appointed Washington attorney Henry Schuelke to investigate contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department team. Schuelke is a former prosecutor and veteran defense attorney who was tapped to oversee a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into influence-peddling allegations against former New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato in 1989.
Sullivan said the matter was too serious to be left to an internal investigation by the Justice Department, which he said dragged its feet before looking into the misconduct. He criticized former Attorney General Michael Mukasey for not responding to complaints: “Shocking, but not surprising,” Sullivan said.
He worried aloud about how often the government withholds evidence, from Guantanamo Bay terrorism cases to public corruption trials. He called on Holder to retrain all prosecutors in the department.
The decision to open a criminal case raises the question of whether the prosecutors, who include the top two officials in the department’s public corruption unit, can remain on the job while under investigation. The investigation carries the threat of prison time, fines and disbarment.
It also threatens to derail the corruption investigation into other public officials, including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has been under scrutiny by the same prosecutors now under investigation. Young’s lawyer attended Tuesday’s hearing but said nothing after it ended.
Subjects of the criminal probe are Brenda Morris, the lead prosecutor in the Stevens case and the No. 2 official in the Public Integrity Section; Public Integrity prosecutors Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan; Alaska federal prosecutors Joseph Bottini and James Goeke; and William Welch, who did not participate in the trial but who supervises the Public Integrity section.
Judge Sullivan repeatedly scolded prosecutors for their behavior during trial. After the verdict, an FBI whistleblower accused the team of misconduct and Sullivan held prosecutors in contempt for ignoring a court order.
The prosecution team was replaced and, last week, the new team acknowledged that key evidence was withheld from Stevens. That evidence included notes from an interview with the government’s star witness, contractor Bill Allen.
On the witness stand, Allen said a mutual friend told him not to expect Stevens to pay for the home renovation project because Stevens only wanted the bill to cover himself. It was damaging testimony that made Stevens look like a politician scheming to cover his tracks while accepting freebies.
But in the previously undisclosed meeting with prosecutors, Allen said he had no recollection of such a discussion. And he valued the renovation work at far less than what prosecutors alleged at the trial.
“I was sick in my stomach,” attorney Brendan Sullivan said Tuesday, recalling seeing the new evidence for the first time. “How could they do this? How could they abandon their responsibilities? How could they take on a very decent man, Ted Stevens, who happened to be a United States senator, and do this?”
Friends say Stevens owes millions of dollars in legal bills. With Tuesday’s dismissal, the former senator could sue the Justice Department for malicious prosecution and try to force the government to pay some of those fees.
The government misconduct and the unraveling of the case overshadowed the facts of a trial in which Stevens — regardless of Allen’s discredited testimony — was shown to have accepted a massage chair, a stained-glass window and an expensive sculpture but never disclosed them on Senate documents.
None of that mattered Tuesday as Stevens gave what amounted to the election victory speech he never got. Standing at the courtroom lectern wearing U.S. and Alaska flag pins on his sweater, he recounted his career in government — from flying planes in World War II to serving as U.S. attorney to his storied career in the Senate.
He thanked his friends, his supporters and his wife. And he vowed to push his friends in the Senate for tough new laws on prosecutorial misconduct.
Then, with the prosecution team feeling the scrutiny that Stevens felt for years, he smiled, posed for pictures with his family on the courthouse steps and said:
“I’m going to enjoy this wonderful day.”