Stevens Case a Blow to DOJ

Posted April 1, 2009 at 6:36pm

Criminal defense lawyers on Wednesday said the Justice Department’s decision to abandon the prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) underscores the burden on prosecutors not to cheat to get a conviction of a high-profile target.

But some government ethics advocates worried that the decision, another blow to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, will make it even harder for the government to press charges against Members of Congress.

The Justice Department filed a motion early Wednesday asking U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan to dismiss the charges against Stevens because of misconduct by the prosecutors in the case.

Stevens was convicted on Oct. 27 on seven counts of failing to report $250,000 in gifts from Alaska oil company executive Bill Allen and other friends. He lost his bid for re-election in November.

Stevens’ legal team filed more than a half-dozen motions throughout the trial seeking dismissal on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence helpful to the prosecution, had submitted evidence that the government knew was false and had attempted to hide key witnesses from defense attorneys.

Attorney General Eric Holder assigned a team to review the case, and the government’s motion on Wednesday concluded that there was enough misconduct by prosecutors to warrant throwing out Stevens’ conviction.

Holder said on Wednesday, “I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial. In light of this conclusion, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances of this particular case, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial.—

Holder added, “The Department of Justice must always ensure that any case in which it is involved is handled fairly and consistent with its commitment to justice.—

Defense attorneys said Holder’s statement strikes a blow for the rights of defendants and does not make it harder to prosecute a strong case, but reinforces that prosecutors cannot hide evidence to rescue a weak case.

“I think that the department’s decision sends a powerful message to line prosecutors across the country that they can’t play games on their obligations to turn over material to the defense,— said Barry Pollack, a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Pollack said, “The department has over time become increasingly aggressive and creative in how they have gone after Congressmen— and other public officials. Holder’s announcement “may be an indication that the pendulum is swinging back a little bit and saying there are some limits to what the government can do to obtain a conviction.—

Dick DeGuerin, a high-profile attorney who defended former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), among other officials, said, “What this means is that prosecutors who cheat are not going to get away with it.—

But DeGuerin said that forcing prosecutors to hand over more evidence to defendants may actually speed prosecutions rather than slow them down, because if the prosecution case is strong, it will encourage lawyers to seek plea deals.

“If you know all the bad stuff that’s coming and you know it plenty early, there is a whole lot better chance that you will decide the client better plead or better try to make a deal,— DeGuerin said.

But some ethics advocates worry that the Stevens case will be another blow to the department’s willingness to pursue cases against Members of Congress.

For any corrupt Member of Congress, “You feel like it is going to be harder for Justice to come after you, and you are going to have a great public relations campaign— about the department’s history of misconduct, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“Any Member of Congress [charged with a crime] is immediately going to publicly proclaim that the Justice Department is overreaching again,— she said.

The collapse of the Stevens case is one of several setbacks the Justice Department has faced in recent years in its prosecutions of Members of Congress. In 2007, a federal court ruled that the FBI search of the Congressional office of former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the government’s appeal of that decision.

The government’s prosecution of former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) on extortion and money-laundering charges is stalled by an extended debate over whether the government evidence-gathering in the case violated the lawmaker’s constitutional protections against prosecution for legislative activity.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said last week that the committee might investigate the prosecution of Stevens. On Wednesday, he told Roll Call, “I do think it’s a matter of Judiciary oversight.—

Senators of both parties agreed on Wednesday that Holder made the right decision.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said: “Sen. Stevens is 85 years old. He’s already been punished enough. I’m satisfied.—

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said, “The decision of Attorney General Holder to withdraw the indictment against Ted Stevens shows clearly that he is committed to the rule of law, regardless of politics.—

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that because there was “so much prosecutorial malfeasance that no court was going to uphold— Stevens’ conviction, Holder had no choice but to pull the indictment.

Coburn and other Republicans suggested that the prosecution of Stevens was always a political effort to chase him from office.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) said in a statement on Wednesday, “It is a frightening thing to contemplate what we may be witnessing here — the undermining of the political process through unscrupulous ploys and professional misconduct.—

John Stanton contributed to this report.