In a fatal blow to the corruption case against former Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, a federal judge granted a Justice Department request to throw out the guilty verdict against Stevens and ordered a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct by the prosecutors tasked with trying the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who rebuked the prosecutors repeatedly during the trial last fall, said today that "For 25 years I've told defendants they'd receive a fair trial… I've never seen such mishandling or misconduct."
Last week, the Justice Department took the extremely rare action to issue a mea culpa and announce its intention to drop the matter after prosecutors had already won a conviction in the high-profile case.
A federal jury in Washington convicted the Alaska Republican, 85, on corruption charges last October, just days before Stevens lost a re-election bid. The prosecution charged that Stevens lied on his Senate financial disclosure forms, in effect concealing $250,000 worth of gifts and home renovations from a wealthy oilman, Bill Allen, and his oil services company, Veco.
Stevens said in court today that he had begun to question his faith in the judicial system, but that the most recent actions taken by Attorney General Eric Holder, Sullivan and new prosecutors who reviewed the case restored that confidence.
"I'm deeply grateful for all you've done," he told the court.
He did not make a formal statement to reporters as he departed the courthouse, but asked how he felt, Stevens said, "Well, if I was Sen. Byrd, I'd say Hallelujah" as he entered a waiting SUV.
West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd is the longest-serving Democrat in the U.S. Senate; Stevens, who had been a senator since 1968, was the longest-serving Republican.
Though Stevens appeared to have had a weight lifted from his shoulders, the judge remained troubled by the allegations of misconduct.
At the hearing, Sullivan clicked through a litany of alleged prosecutorial missteps, including the improper release of a witness who then returned to Alaska, blacking out exculpatory information from an FBI report, withholding a key grand jury transcript and submitting false business records into evidence. Prosecutors have since admitted that some of the moves were "mistakes."
Discrepancies in Case Against Ted Stevens
Sullivan made clear his belief that the prosecution withheld evidence that would have completely undermined their case. The prosecution's key witness, Allen, told them that the dollar amount of work on Stevens' Girdwood, Alaska, home was much closer to what the senator said he paid than the larger amount that the government alleged.
If the senator paid for the work, he did not have to report it as a gift -- which strikes at the crux of the case against the former lawmaker.
Additionally, new prosecutors assigned to review the case found discrepancies regarding prosecution interviews with Allen, who suffered brain injuries injuries in a 2001 motorcycle accident, and his trial testimony.
Earlier this year, Sullivan held three members of the trial prosecution team in contempt of court for failing to provide documents to the defense in a post-trial investigation centering on claims of FBI and prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
The original prosecution team "repeatedly failed to meet its obligations," Sullivan said today.
"Whether a public official, a defendant or a Guantanamo detainee… the government is obligated to provide exculpatory information," he added.
In light of the blunders, Sullivan tapped Washington attorney Henry Schuelke to investigate the prosecutors that handled the case against Stevens. That inquiry comes in addition to an internal Justice Department review that Holder announced last week.
Sullivan named the attorneys who will be under the independent investigation: lead prosecutor Brenda Morris, Nicholas Marsh, Edward Sullivan, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, as well as William Welch, the chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, which investigates corruption. Morris is currently Welch's deputy.
He said the move was not an attempt to "prejudge" the lawyers, but that "the court has an obligation to undertake this."
The Justice Department today reiterated that Holder determined that the case should be dropped last week because "certain evidence was not provided to the defense, and it was in the interests of justice not to proceed to a new trial."
As for the alleged prosecutorial misconduct, the department statement said that it "will review the order regarding an investigation of prosecutors' conduct and will continue to cooperate with the court on this matter."
Allegations of 'False Evidence' and 'Corrupt Prosecutors'
Stevens' attorney Brendan Sullivan Jr. charged that the trial prosecutors "engaged in intentional misconduct" and that it was "clear, willful and devious."
"I don't think there is anything worse than our government presenting false evidence," said defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, who laid out a timeline of correspondence in which the defense team asked for materials they were entitled by the Constitution. "We're no match for corrupt prosecutors who want to have false testimony."
He added that the apparent withholding of evidence in the case left him "sick to my stomach" and "in a silent rage for many days."
But it was Stevens who bore the brunt of the alleged misconduct, Brendan Sullivan said, because prosecutors put him through an "unlawful trial" and was "disgraced by a verdict that never should have been."
Brendan Sullivan also said he had written three letters to Holder's predecessor, Michael Mukasey, but said he never received a response
Defense lawyers had throughout the trial accused the prosecution of misconduct, including withholding evidence, and the judge presiding over the trial had repeatedly admonished the government team.
One of the key allegations is that prosecutors might have tried to make certain that a witness who would have been useful to the defense never testified. A whistleblower at the FBI supported the defense claim in a complaint filed in December.
And there have been other explosive allegations since the trial ended, including that the lead FBI agent on the case might have a had inappropriate relationship with Allen, the government's star witness, and that the agent was allegedly telling potential witnesses about grand jury information before trial.
During the trial, prosecutors fended off several requests for a mistrial filed by Stevens' attorneys. Lead prosecutor Brenda Morris admitted to some mistakes in court last fall, and said that her team was "not taking this lightly."
Stevens' Alaska Legacy
Though he lost his re-election bid last year, Stevens' legacy in Alaska remains.
He worked on Alaska's bid for statehood and built a reputation for his ability to secure millions in federal dollars to Alaska.
One infamous project associated with Stevens is the "bridge to nowhere," which became a symbol for pork projects in Washington.
Buildings and facilities all across Alaska, including the state's biggest airport, bear Stevens' name.
But Stevens is also known for his orneriness. On days when he was spoiling for a fight in the Senate, he often wore a tie bearing the angry comic book hero the Incredible Hulk. He even referred to himself as "a mean, miserable SOB."