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The U.S. Justice Department botched the corruption case against the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, leading to a conviction that torpedoed the re-election of the chamber’s longest serving Republican, senators said.
Lawmakers in both parties criticized the prosecution today at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Henry Schuelke III, a court-appointed special counsel, testified at the hearing on his 514-page report on misconduct in the case.
“Significant evidence was not disclosed to the defense and critical mistakes were made throughout the course of the trial that denied Senator Stevens a fair opportunity to defend himself,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “The sloppiness, mistakes and poor decisions in connection with the Stevens case disturbed the judge hearing the case and disturb me.”
Prosecutors repeatedly hid evidence that could have helped Stevens defend himself at trial and undermined the credibility of the government’s key witness, Schuelke said in the report.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan made the report public March 15, almost three years after he set aside Stevens’s conviction for omitting $250,000 worth of gifts, mainly improvements to his Girdwood, Alaska, home, from his financial disclosure reports.
Stevens, who served 40 years in the Senate, lost a re- election campaign in 2008. He died in a plane crash in 2010 at age 86.
Schuelke concluded that the misconduct didn’t warrant criminal contempt charges because the prosecutors didn’t violate specific court orders.
Still, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said misconduct in the Stevens prosecution was “a very troubling matter that warrants more attention than it has gotten.”
“Reading through this report is like reading through a case study in poor management,” Grassley said. “We have an obligation to hold the Justice Department responsible for what happened here and to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
As an example of evidence that should have been disclosed to Stevens’ defense team, Schuelke highlighted a report finding that prosecutors anticipated that Rocky Williams, a potential government witness, would have corroborated Stevens’ claims that he had paid for upgrades to his home. Had that information been disclosed, it “may well have affected the outcome of the trial,” Schuelke testified. Williams had to return to Alaska for medical reasons and didn’t testify at the trial.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has completed a separate investigation, Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on March 8. The office’s report, which hasn’t been made public, includes sanction recommendations, Holder said.
The Justice Department’s misconduct review is “in its last stages,” and the Office of Professional Responsibility findings will be made public “to the extent it is appropriate and permissible under the law,” according to a department statement submitted to the committee today. Disclosure would “have significant Privacy Act implications,” according to the statement.
Grassley today echoed lawmakers’ calls for the Justice Department to release a full, un-redacted version of the report. The office of professional responsibility will decide how much of the report to make public, Holder said during testimony before the Judiciary Committee in November.
“I want to share as much of that as we possibly can, given the very public nature of that matter, and the very public decision that I made to dismiss the case,” Holder said.
Holder asked Sullivan to dismiss the case as Stevens awaited sentencing, after a department review determined the evidence had been withheld. The investigation had begun during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Schuelke’s law firm received $981,842 in payments for work on the investigation between April 2009 and the end of his appointment this month, according to a statement yesterday from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
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