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Lisa Murkowski Challenges DOJ on Ted Stevens Case

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) plans to introduce legislation Thursday to reform the justice system, nearly 16 months after an investigation revealed prosecutors concealed evidence that may have helped exonerate former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on corruption charges.

The legislation, which would require federal prosecutors to disclose evidence that favors the defense early on in the judicial process, arrives the same day as a nearly 500-page independent report on the prosecutorial misconduct in the Stevens case is slated to be released publicly.

“It is the solemn responsibility of federal prosecutors to secure justice — not simply convictions. It is the responsibility of the government to prove an individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the government cannot, it is expected to voluntarily abandon the case,” Murkowski wrote in an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News over the weekend. “To keep Americans’ faith in the system we must raise the standards for government prosecutors and cut the chances that we will see the same ‘hide the ball’ tactics Sen. Stevens faced.”

“The Stevens case was not unique,” Murkowski continued. “We cannot allow the government to have a finger on the scales of justice.”

Stevens had been indicted, tried and found guilty of making false statements on annual financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate because he did not disclose gifts he received. That verdict, however, was vacated after the Justice Department found that its prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that would have aided the former Senator’s case. Stevens died in an August 2010 plane crash.

Although legal precedent requires prosecutors to share information with defense teams, Murkowski argues that a federal law is necessary to make the terms of sharing such information consistent across all jurisdictions.

The opinion piece in the major Alaskan newspaper and the bill coming this week are just the latest of very public moves from Murkowski in challenging the DOJ on the Stevens case. Before Stevens’ death, he and Murkowski — a member of one of Alaska’s most prominent political families — were close, with the late, longtime Senator recording a commercial for Murkowski’s Independent Senate bid in 2010 shortly before he died.

In a question-and-answer session following remarks to the Alaska Legislature late last month, Murkowski was asked by a local politician to address the prosecutorial misconduct charges, which have shaken the state.

“What are you doing to ensure that no other Alaskan will be subject to that federal prosecutorial misconduct in the future?” the legislator asked.

Murkowski’s response was as telling as the question itself.

“It is a subject that I think touches all of us, because Ted Stevens touched all of us, and what happened with that Department of Justice investigation was a travesty,” Murkowski said in the Feb. 23 session. “A prosecution is supposed to be about bringing about justice, not just bringing about conviction, and they failed in that. And our government failed, and it tipped the balance of power in the United States Senate, and Ted Stevens is no longer with us.”

Because of the investigation, Stevens was defeated by Democrat Mark Begich in the 2008 election. Democrats picked up eight seats that cycle.

Last Thursday, Murkowski pressed Attorney General Eric Holder in an Appropriations subcommittee hearing to answer questions about the DOJ’s conduct in the case and the reported $1.8 million in fees spent by the government to defend the prosecutors in the botched Stevens proceedings. She also asked Holder whether he supports the public airing of the independent investigation, given that one of the prosecutors involved is seeking an emergency order to block the document from being released.

Holder defended the department, saying prosecutors held different views of how the investigation was conducted and that it is not without precedent for the department to spend money defending its prosecutors against allegations.

“Given the issues that we found there, magnitude of the case and, frankly, the magnitude of the errors that led me to decide to dismiss the case, there is a legitimate public interest in knowing as much as we can about what happened, why it happened, what steps the Justice Department has taken in connection with these findings of misconduct,” Holder said.

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