WASHINGTON — A special prosecutor’s finding that Justice Department attorneys concealed vital information from the defense in the case against then-Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the nation’s longest-serving senators, has prompted calls for Congress to clamp down on prosecutors.
In a case that could have future implications in how the Justice Department prosecutes public officials, a report released Thursday found that the Stevens investigation and prosecution "were permeated by the systematic concealment" of key evidence that would have been beneficial to his defense and that "seriously damaged the testimony and credibility" of the government's key witness, the corrupt Alaskan former chief of oil field-services company Veco Corp.
Those were the conclusions of the 514-page report by Washington lawyer Henry Schuelke, whom the judge in Stevens’ trial appointed to investigate misconduct by the prosecution team.
The report didn’t, however, draw conclusions about whether Stevens himself was innocent of wrongdoing.
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In a much-watched trial among Washington insiders, a jury convicted Stevens in 2008 on seven counts of lying on his Senate financial disclosure forms, which prosecutors contended he did to conceal gifts from Bill Allen, then the head of Veco Corp.
But the convictions were thrown out a year later when the Justice Department admitted that it had failed to turn over evidence to the defense.
The prosecution turned on a key question of intent: Did Stevens think he was paying for home improvements by Allen’s company or did he understand the renovations to be gifts?
Stevens, a Republican, lost the 2008 election to Democrat Mark Begich shortly after the trial. Stevens died in a plane crash in western Alaska in August 2010.
Stevens' chief defense attorney, Brendan Sullivan, said Thursday that the Schuelke report showed "the worse misconduct we've seen in a generation by prosecutors at the Department of Justice and the FBI."
"If this can happen to a United States senator, a sitting senator, in the District of Columbia, then it can happen anywhere to anyone," Sullivan said.
Anne Wiesmann, the chief counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she didn’t think the report showed that Stevens was innocent of the charges that had been made against him.
“I think the unfortunate thing is we’ll never know, because the government didn’t play fair in its prosecution,” she said. What's clear, she said, is that Stevens was very close to the “criminally and ethically challenged” Allen.
Allen, a self-made Alaskan construction executive and longtime political influence peddler, spoke of fishing and traveling with Stevens, and how the men used to go to a desert Southwest “boot camp” to drink wine and walk off pounds.
The Stevens case has prompted calls for a new law on what prosecutors must turn over to the defense.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said they were supporting a bill that Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced Thursday with bipartisan co-sponsors.
The legislation essentially would require prosecutors to turn over evidence favorable to the defense as soon as they receive it. Murkowski said there was no clear national standard at this point and that too much was left to interpretation.
The Justice Department said Thursday that it already had made revisions after the Stevens case.
“The department has instituted a sweeping training curriculum for all federal prosecutors and made annual discovery training mandatory," Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
A key question in the trial was whether Stevens thought he was paying for all the renovations by oil field contractor Veco to his home in Girdwood, Alaska. The special prosecutor’s report discusses a handwritten note in which Stevens asked Veco chief Allen for a bill for the services on his house and said that a mutual friend, Bob Persons, would be in touch with Allen about matter.
Allen testified at Stevens' trial that Persons told him, "Don't worry about getting a bill; Ted's just covering his ass." But Allen had told prosecutors before the trial that he didn't remember speaking to Persons about the note, a statement not shared with the defense.
Special investigator Schuelke found that omission suspect:
"The complete, simultaneous and long-term memory failure by the entire prosecution team, four prosecutors and the FBI case agent of the same statement about an important document made at the same meeting by their key witness in a high-profile case is extraordinary,” the report said.
The Schuelke report found no proof that information about that April 2008 interview was withheld from the defense team on purpose.
But it said there was evidence of intentional concealment on three other occasions, including the failure to report that Allen had asked a 15-year-old prostitute he was involved with to commit perjury by signing a sworn statement that they had no relationship. Stevens’ attorneys could have used that information to attack Allen’s credibility as the government’s key witness.
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