A federal judge blasted prosecutors in the corruption case of Sen. Ted Stevens Monday and said he will consider sanctions against them if warranted, after defense attorneys said that the government withheld information about a possible witness who they say could bolster the Alaska Republican's claim of innocence.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan denied a request filed overnight by Stevens' attorneys to declare a mistrial and dismiss the indictment against the lawmaker, but he cautioned that "[t]he government is treading in very shallow water here."
Stevens, 84, is the longest-serving Republican senator. He is accused of lying on financial disclosure forms required by the U.S. Senate and concealing $250,000 worth of gifts including a massive renovation project carried out at his Girdwood, Alaska, home. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
This weekend the Stevens defense team discovered that Robert "Rocky" Williams, who reportedly worked as the supervisor on the home renovation, had returned to Alaska last week after speaking with prosecutors.
The defense has suggested that he has critical information about payments Stevens made for the renovations of his home.
The home renovation project is key to the prosecution's case, as government lawyers have claimed in court that Stevens worked with now-defunct oil services firm Veco to carry the work out off the books so he wouldn't have to pay the full cost of the project.
After speaking with Williams by phone this weekend, the defense says that he was prepared to testify that he did not spend as much time working on the house as the government has asserted at trial. The defense has argued in opening statements that Stevens paid $160,000 for the home renovations and did nothing wrong.
"I'm not suggesting misconduct by the government, but I want briefs on this issue," Sullivan told the lawyers after a lunch break. Earlier Monday, Sullivan had scolded prosecutors for "unilaterally" making the decision to send Williams home.
"If it is sanctionable, I will impose sanctions," Sullivan said of the situation.
Before the trial started Monday morning, Prosecutor Nicholas Marsh told the judge that Williams' testimony was not central to the case because it "is about the financial disclosure forms."
But defense attorney Robert Cary told the judge if the defense had the information before trial, its ability to cross-examine witnesses and opening statement would have been different. "Our defense is that he [Sen. Stevens] paid a fair price," he said.
Cary said that Williams initially did not want to speak with the defense and told the judge, "We got lucky that we were able to speak with him."
The fact prosecutors had allowed Williams to return to Alaska without informing the defense or the judge apparently infuriated Sullivan.
"I'm flabbergasted why you'd do this. ... Get on a plane and call the defense attorneys when you get back to Alaska," Sullivan said. "Why wasn't I consulted? I'm peeved now. It's a federal subpoena to appear in my court."
Marsh told Sullivan that Williams was not under subpoena until Oct. 6, but that "[l]ooking back on it, we understand where the court's coming from."