In the wake of mistakes in the corruption trial of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the Justice Department’s chief prosecutor of public corruption cases will step down from the team pursuing the unrelated indictment of a former House aide in the influence-peddling scandal centered on ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said Monday that she expected prosecutor William Welch, the chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, to be removed from the trial of Kevin Ring, a former aide to then-Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) who later joined Abramoff as a lobbyist.
“He’s not the lead prosecutor anymore,— Huvelle said. “It’s clear that he’s not going to be in this case.—
Welch faces a criminal contempt investigation into his role and that of four other federal prosecutors in Stevens’ recent trial. The court dismissed a guilty verdict against Stevens earlier this month at the request of the Justice Department, after it acknowledged that prosecutors had improperly withheld evidence from Stevens’ defense team.
Although Welch has oversight duties for all cases brought by the Public Integrity Section, the Ring trial is the only case in which he has filed a notice of appearance, indicating he is intimately involved in the proceedings.
Huvelle addressed the issue Monday in response to concerns raised by Ring’s legal team. Welch’s name appears on documents filed in the case as recently as Friday.
In addition to objections over Welch’s involvement in Ring’s upcoming trial, the defense team also questioned the inclusion of attorney Henry Schuelke, who is expected to be called as a key government witness.
Schuelke, a top trial lawyer at the Washington, D.C.-based firm Janis, Schuelke & Wechsler, conducted an in-house investigation at Greenberg Traurig in 2004 after news reports questioned the conduct of then-lobbyist Abramoff.
But Schuelke, also a former special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee from 1989 to 1991, was recently tapped by District Judge Emmet Sullivan to investigate Welch and the Justice Department’s actions in the Stevens trial.
Ring attorney Andrew Wise raised concerns that Schuelke’s testimony and ongoing investigation could give an “appearance of impropriety.—
“It’s the type of bias issue that is very hard to plumb in front of a jury,— Wise said.
Huvelle, however, noted that Schuelke is a friendly witness for the government and questioned how the investigation would affect his testimony.
“His role has to do with four or five people who have nothing to do with this case,— Huvelle said of Schuelke’s investigation, and later added of the opposition: “I must be thick. I don’t understand it at all.—
In addition, Huvelle indicated that she did not believe Welch will remain in his post in the near future.
“He won’t be the head of the office by the time we get to trial,— Huvelle said, adding that Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to appoint a new chief for the section.
Ring is scheduled to go on trial in September.