Corruption Investigations Go Forward After Stevens Debacle

Posted April 8, 2009 at 11:34am

An unprecedented criminal investigation of the top officials within the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section could render the agency short-handed — but it is unlikely to curtail ongoing probes of public officials, sources familiar with the agency said.U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan on Tuesday ordered criminal contempt proceedings against six prosecutors who handled the trial of then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), including William Welch, chief of the Public Integrity Section.Sullivan appointed an independent prosecutor to investigate the Justice Department’s handling of the case, including the apparent failure to turn over notes contradicting a key prosecution witness. Attorney General Eric Holder cited that incident in an April 1 motion to dismiss the Stevens case, which Sullivan granted on Tuesday.Sources knowledgeable of how the Public Integrity Section operates said that while the criminal investigation of top prosecutors will not derail unrelated cases, its effects will reverberate within the agency. FBI Director Robert Mueller said in March that more than 2,500 public corruption probes are under way.“It puts those particular attorneys under an ethical cloud and it’s going to be harmful to the full office,— said one former division attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In particular, those individuals — including Welch, as well as Public Integrity Section attorneys Brenda Morris, Edward Sullivan and Nicholas Marsh, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys for the District of Alaska Joseph Bottini and James Goeke — will not represent the government in court under Justice Department guidelines.Other lawyers following the Stevens case similarly declined to be quoted on the record, but most suggested that Holder will likely appoint someone to temporarily replace Welch as head of the Public Integrity Section to prevent any legal hurdles that could slow other investigations in the office.Sources familiar with the division’s processes suggested that some decisions requiring managerial approval, such as whether to bring specific charges against a suspect, otherwise could face delays if senior officials are focused on answering questions about their own actions.Nonetheless, the former Public Integrity attorney added that the department would clearly continue its mission, noting that the office’s staff of about 30 leaves more than two dozen other prosecutors to continue their day-to-day tasks.Several attorneys said that involving any of the lawyers who Sullivan singled out for investigation in decision-making on other investigations would give the defense attorney instant ammunition to attack the Justice Department and its case against his or her client. But other attorneys contacted by Roll Call asserted that the Stevens decision would be unlikely to affect unrelated investigations, such as the ongoing probe tied to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, noting that those cases are staffed by a separate team of prosecutors.In a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon by Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney, the agency emphasized that no judgment has been rendered about the prosecutors’ recently revealed actions.“After reviewing this case, the Attorney General determined last week that it should be dismissed because certain evidence was not provided to the defense and it was in the interests of justice not to proceed to a new trial. We will review the order regarding an investigation of prosecutors’ conduct and will continue to cooperate with the court on this matter,— Sweeney said.“We take seriously the court’s comments regarding the discovery process and will review them for possible future actions,— she added. “As the Attorney General indicated last week, the fact that there is an inquiry into the prosecutors’ actions does not mean or imply any determination has been made about their conduct.—The Justice Department removed the case’s original prosecution team in early February following Sullivan’s decision to hold Morris and Welch in contempt of court for failing to comply with a court order to produce documents to Stevens’ defense.John Fitzgibbons, a Florida attorney who worked in the Public Integrity Section in the 1980s, said the mishandling of the Stevens case “is very disappointing.— Fitzgibbons said that when he was there, the Public Integrity Section lawyers “bent over backwards— to be fair and to pursue a criminal indictment only as a last resort “because we knew the mere issuing [of] a grand jury subpoena … could have a dramatic impact on the career of a public official.—The significance of Sullivan’s ruling clearly was not lost even on his colleagues. One of the spectators in the jury box Tuesday morning was District Judge Ellen Huvelle, who has presided over the criminal cases linked to Abramoff.