Four Stevens Prosecutors Hit With Contempt Charge

Posted February 13, 2009 at 3:23pm

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan charged four federal prosecutors with contempt of court Friday, after he lambasted the Justice Department attorneys for failing to comply with court orders to turn over documents to ex-Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) defense team.

Included in the charge are both William Welch, head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, and Brenda Morris, the lead prosecutor in the Stevens trial along with prosecutors Patty Stemler and Kevin Driscoll.

Sullivan deferred issuing immediate sanctions on the attorneys, stating, “There will be further proceedings at the appropriate time.”

Punishment for a charge of civil contempt typically consists of a fine, but can also include jail time depending on the specific offense.

The documents in question related to a complaint filed by FBI Agent Chad Joy, a member of the team that investigated Stevens, that alleges a broad swath of misbehavior by other agents involved in the case, including one agent who was allegedly involved in a personal relationship with one of the department’s key witnesses against Stevens.

Since the document surfaced in December, the department has grappled with whether Joy may be subject to whistle-blower protections, initially arguing to the court that the complaint should be heavily redacted to protect the identities of other FBI employees.

But in January, the Justice Department revealed to the court that Joy’s complaint had not qualified for whistle-blower status and asked for those names to be released, prompting Sullivan to demand a detailed explanation — including internal e-mails and other communications — of when and how the decision on Joy’s status had been made.

In subsequent filings, Justice Department attorneys have argued that many of those documents sought in Sullivan’s order could not be filed in the public realm — or shared with Stevens’ attorneys — because the communications would reveal prosecution strategy and other confidential materials protected under “work-product” doctrine.

In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday, government prosecutors acknowledged that at least 32 documents did not qualify under work-product guidelines, but said they had not turned those items over to Stevens’ attorneys.

When asked by Sullivan why the documents had not been shared, Driscoll, whom Welch referred to as the department’s “work-product expert,” said he could not offer a specific reason.

Sullivan, who ordered the documents to be turned over by the close of business, mocked the attorney’s lack of an explanation, stating: “‘We really don’t have a good faith reason for not complying.’ That is not acceptable.”

Federal prosecutors indicated they will appeal the release of additional documents, but Sullivan did not appear favorable to the argument, suggesting government attorneys simply file the remaining items.

“You want to brief it, fine and I’ll resolve the issue, or you can just file them,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t create this problem. The government did.”

Stevens was convicted in October on seven counts of filing false financial disclosures to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over a six-year period. He has maintained his innocence but was defeated in his re-election bid in November.

Stevens’ daughter, Beth Stevens, attended the Friday hearing. The former Senator was not present.