– The bungled trial of former GOP Sen. Ted Stevens tainted more than just the Justice Department. It probably tipped the balance of a close election, and the fallout from that is far from over.
Stevens, the 85-year-old patriarch of Alaska politics, is headed to court Tuesday, when a judge is expected to grant Attorney General Eric Holder’s request to dismiss the case and toss out Stevens’ conviction.
Within the department, the Stevens case could have far-ranging implications. The prosecution team, including the top two officials in the public integrity section, faces an internal investigation.
The FBI has 2,500 pending corruption investigations across the country, and whether the targets are lawmakers or suspected crooked government inspectors, prosecutors may be more cautious in bringing charges after the Stevens debacle.
A jury convicted Stevens of lying about gifts and home renovations provided by an Alaska businessman.
Stevens beat the charges, but lost his job. In that, he’s not alone.
In Puerto Rico last year, prosecutors filed a new indictment against Democratic Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila three months before the election. He lost the race, but a jury found him not guilty of all charges.
The prosecution “certainly smacked of political motivation,” argued Acevedo’s lawyer, Thomas Green.
Such accusations are not new from defense lawyers in corruption cases. But they have far more bite when the politicians charged ultimately win in court after having lost their careers.
In Wisconsin in 2006, prosecutors indicted a little-known state worker for allegedly helping contributors to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle get a contract. The worker, Georgia Thompson, was sentenced to prison two months before the election.
After the election – which Doyle won – an appeals court not only overturned her conviction, but ordered her immediately freed from prison. One appeals court judge described the evidence against Thompson as “beyond thin.”
During the Bush administration, Democrats claimed the conviction of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was pushed by politically minded Republicans.
Siegelman, who was sent to prison in 2007 for bribery and corruption, was freed last year on bond. An appeals court recently dismissed some, but not all the charges and ordered him resentenced. His lawyer is asking the attorney general to toss out the case entirely, just like in the Stevens case.
Holder, a former corruption prosecutor, is also facing calls to overhaul the public integrity section.
In announcing his decision on Stevens, he said the department “must always ensure that any case in which it is involved is handled fairly and consistent with its commitment to justice.”
Joseph diGenova, a former federal prosecutor, said federal prosecutors suffer from “a lack of supervision.”
“I’m a great fan of prosecutors, but the department and the U.S. attorneys offices in my opinion have been out of control,” diGenova said.
In Stevens’ case, Holder decided to pull the plug after prosecutors withheld notes of an interview with a crucial witness. The notes would have contradicted damaging testimony the witness gave against Stevens.
To diGenova, it was one of the worst examples of prosecutors caring more about winning a case than finding justice, and further proof of what he called incredible arrogance of many lawyers in the department.
“This was, in essence, a framing of a senator. That doesn’t mean he’s pure as the driven snow, but they were going to convict him no matter what,” the lawyer said. “They changed the balance of power in the United States Senate. That ought to be a crime.”
Stevens was the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. A week before the 2008 election, a jury found him guilty on seven felony counts of lying on Senate financial disclosure forms to conceal hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations from a wealthy oil contractor.
After the conviction, Stevens lost to Democrat Mark Begich by fewer than 4,000 votes. Begich has rejected calls from Alaska Republicans, including Gov. Sarah Palin, for him to resign in order to have a new election for the seat.
When he took the job of attorney general, Holder pledged to remove any political considerations from the department’s work after a slew of investigations into alleged partisan meddling during the Bush years.
Those accusations were initially driven by the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in late 2006, and culminated with the ouster of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general.
Yet it was the Republican administration that filed the case against the Republican Stevens, and it was their Democratic successors who dropped it.