"In nearly 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case", U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan.
The above quote explains why, on Tuesday April 7th, 2009, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' long legal nightmare finally came to an end when Judge Sullivan accepted the recommendation of Attorney General Eric Holder and dismissed the corruption conviction of Stevens today. In addition, Judge Sullivan took the rare and serious step of opening a criminal investigation into prosecutors who mishandled the case. The LegalTimes provides more technical legal analysis of Sullivan's decision. The Anchorage Daily News and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner have the lead Alaskan stories; lead national stories from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN.
The judge actually set aside the conviction itself, so according to Stevens' defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan, the former Senator now has a clean record, as if he had never been convicted. This means Ted Stevens could truthfully answer "No" if asked if he has a Federal conviction on his record.
As Sullivan dismissed the case, Stevens turned to his friends and held up a fist in victory as his wife and daughters broke into loud sobs. "Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system, was unwavering", Stevens told the court in his first public comments since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would drop the case. "But what some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed".
And amongst those consequences was the loss of a U.S. Senate reelection bid to Democrat Mark Begich by a narrow margin, so narrow in fact that when Eric Holder made his announcement, Alaska Republican Party boss Randy Ruedrich called upon Senator Begich to resign and allow for a special replacement election. Begich has since rejected any calls to resign, and the brief furor now seems to have subsided, particularly after an April 2nd KTUU Channel 2 poll showed that 60 percent of respondents did NOT want Begich to resign (a subsequent April 3rd KTUU poll showed that Mark Begich might swamp Stevens in a special election).
Sullivan also appointed Washington attorney Henry Schuelke as a special prosecutor to investigate contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department prosecution team led by Brenda Morris. He said the matter was too serious to be left to an internal investigation by the department, which has dragged its feet looking into the misconduct. In a criminal case, the prosecutors could face prison time and fines. The decision raises the question of whether the prosecutors, who include the top two officials in the department's public corruption unit, can remain on the job while under criminal investigation.
Sullivan repeatedly scolded prosecutors for their behavior during trial. After the verdict, FBI whistleblower Chad Joy, who is still employed by the agency, accused the team of misconduct and Sullivan held prosecutors in contempt for ignoring a court order. As a result, the prosecution team was replaced and, last week, new prosecutors acknowledged that key evidence was withheld from Stevens, prompting Eric Holder's decision to abandon the prosecution.
This is not the first time that Brenda Morris has been involved in a tainted prosecution. In 2003, Alan Brown, a well-known criminal defense attorney with Brown & Norton, and Jean Brown, a family law solo, were targeted by overzealous Internal Revenue Service agents, which led to the Browns being indicted in 2003 by a federal grand jury in Austin, Texas, for allegedly filing false personal tax returns between 1994 and 1997. After a five-week trial before U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin in United States v. Alan Brown, prosecuted by Morris, a jury acquitted Alan Brown in 2005. The government subsequently dismissed the indictment against Jean Brown. The Browns subsequently filed a Federal Tort Claims Act suit against the Feds, and the Feds settled with them for $1.34 million (Alan Brown, et al. v. United States). More details about this case on Andrew Halcro's blog.
Of course, setting aside the conviction does NOT mean Ted Stevens didn't file erroneous reports. It simply transforms it from a criminal issue to an administrative issue. As I've insisted all along, it was merely sloppy bookkeeping on Stevens' part. In Alaska, when an elected official is guilty of "sloppy bookkeeping", we don't throw away a gazillion zogbucks on lawyers, juries, and trials. Instead, we refer such cases to the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC), who investigate. And if they find there is a problem, they direct remedial action, and can also assess a reasonable fine. No muss, no fuss. So while Ted Stevens is not guiltless, he is NOT a criminal. He poses no threat to my person or my property, which is my standard of criminality.
Unfortunately, because Judge Sullivan has directed that the prosecution team be investigated, Brenda Morris will be advised not to talk to the media. This means we won't find out immediately what her motive was. Is she truly evil, merely driven, or was she just caught flat-footed by Stevens' request for a speedy trial? I suspect a combination of the last two reasons.
In any event, Judge Sullivan's decision helps clear the way for Ted Stevens to challenge Sarah Palin for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, if he chooses. He'll be 87 years old in 2010, but he would be a "young" 87. And Stevens has more knowledge about government in his little finger alone than Sarah Palin will ever have. While Sarah Palin makes waves, Ted Stevens gets results.