WASHINGTON — Pumping his fist in triumph, former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens swapped places with his prosecutors Tuesday, his corruption conviction dismissed and his accusers suddenly facing criminal investigation themselves.
It was a stunning turnaround for one of the legendary fighters in Senate history, a man known for a temper that matched his Incredible Hulk neckties. Run out of office following the conviction last October, Stevens gave his long-awaited victory speech in court as a judge wiped away the verdict.
The prosecutors, who around this time would normally be arguing for Stevens' prison sentence, were not in court. Kicked off the case following repeated accusations of withholding evidence, they're now the subject of a criminal contempt probe.
"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 said.
Case cost Stevens his Senate seat
Sullivan appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Justice Department lawyers who repeatedly withheld evidence from defense attorneys and the judge during the monthlong trial. Stevens was convicted in October of lying on Senate forms about home renovations and gifts he received from wealthy friends.
The case cost Stevens, 85, a Senate seat he had held for 40 years. Once the Senate's longest-serving Republican, he narrowly lost to Democrat Mark Begich soon after the verdict.
Now, the case could prove career-ending for prosecutors in the Justice Department's public corruption unit.
After 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 Tuesday, 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."
The unraveling of the case overshadowed the facts of a trial in which Stevens was shown to have accepted thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts.
Sullivan appointed Washington attorney Henry Schuelke to investigate contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department team. Schuelke is a former prosecutor and veteran defense attorney who oversaw a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into influence-peddling allegations against former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in 1989.
He worried aloud about how often prosecutors withhold evidence, from Guantanamo Bay terrorism cases to public corruption trials. He called on Holder to retrain all prosecutors in the department.
The decision to open a criminal case raises the question of whether the prosecutors, who include top officials in the department's public corruption unit, can remain on the job while under investigation. The investigation carries the threat of prison time, fines and disbarment.
Investigation into other public officials
It also threatens to derail the investigation into other public officials, including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has been under scrutiny by the same prosecutors now being investigated. Young's lawyer attended Tuesday's hearing but said nothing after it ended.
Subjects of the criminal probe are lead prosecutor Brenda Morris, the department's No. 2 corruption official and an instructor within the department; Public Integrity prosecutors Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan; Alaska federal prosecutors Joseph Bottini and James Goeke; and William Welch, who did not participate in the trial but who supervises the Public Integrity section and has overseen every major public corruption case in recent years.
Judge Sullivan repeatedly scolded prosecutors for their behavior during trial. After the verdict, an FBI whistleblower accused the team of misconduct and Sullivan held prosecutors in contempt for ignoring a court order.
Testimony in question
The prosecution team was replaced and, last week, the new team acknowledged that key evidence was withheld. That included notes from an interview with the government's star witness, contractor Bill Allen.
On the witness stand, Allen said a mutual friend told him not to expect payment for Stevens' home renovations because the senator only wanted the bill to cover himself. It was damaging testimony that made Stevens look like a scheming politician trying to conceal his freebies.
But in the previously undisclosed meeting with prosecutors, Allen had no recollection of such a discussion. And he valued the renovation work at far less than what prosecutors alleged at the trial.
"I was sick in my stomach," attorney Brendan Sullivan said Tuesday, recalling seeing the new evidence for the first time. "How could they do this? How could they abandon their responsibilities? How could they take on a very decent man, Ted Stevens, who happened to be a United States senator, and do this?"
Late Tuesday, Holder said he was "troubled by the findings ... and the statements" by the judge. In a CBS News interview, Holder defended the agency's internal investigation. "I think we are fully capable of looking at ourselves, if that was necessary," he said, adding that the department would cooperate with Schuelke's inquiry.
The attorney general dismissed the suggestion that the prosecutors might have been politically motivated and said until there is a reason to decide otherwise, the prosecutors will remain at the Justice Department.
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Despite the prosecutorial misconduct, the trial revealed that Stevens — regardless of Allen's discredited testimony — accepted a massage chair, a stained-glass window and an expensive sculpture but never disclosed them on Senate documents.
'I'm going to enjoy this wonderful day'
None of that mattered Tuesday as Stevens gave what amounted to the election victory speech he never had a chance to give. Standing at the courtroom lectern wearing a pin of the U.S. and Alaska flags on his sweater, he recounted his career in government — from flying planes in World War II to serving as U.S. attorney to his storied career in the Senate.
He thanked his friends, his supporters and his wife. And he vowed to push his friends in the Senate for tough new laws on prosecutorial misconduct.
Then, with the prosecution team feeling the scrutiny that Stevens felt for years, he smiled, posed for pictures with his family outside the courthouse and said:
"I'm going to enjoy this wonderful day."
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