Senators to Justice Department: Sack prosecutors, apologize to Stevens family

A bipartisan group of senators is calling on the Justice Department to apologize to the family of the late Sen. Ted Stevens and fire the attorneys accused of the withholding of evidence that contributed to his criminal conviction. 

The former colleagues of the long-serving Alaskan Republican told The Hill that the DOJ’s prosecution of Stevens was a disgrace.

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Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a close friend of Stevens’s, said DOJ handled the case against the former senator “vindictively” and recommended the disbarment of the attorneys responsible for the botched trial. Hatch said the failure of the prosecutors to turn over key evidence was “the lowest” level of law and indicative of a hunger to convict powerful politicians even in the face of conflicting testimony. 

“There are a lot of good people down at Justice, and they continue on no matter what, but there’s been a growth of ambitious prosecutors in this country — some are U.S. attorneys — who don’t care about justice, they just care about winning,” Hatch said in an interview.

“In this case, one of the most basic principles of law was ignored, and that was exculpatory evidence that would have cleared Stevens that should have said to them, ‘This man should never have been indicted to begin with,’ ” he said. 

Several senators on both sides of the aisle agreed with Hatch, although the lawmakers noted the mishandling of the case has not undermined their confidence in the agency’s Public Integrity Section as a whole.

A spokesperson for the DOJ declined to answer questions for this article and instead pointed to Holder’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

Recently released excerpts from a 500-page independent report on the Stevens case, which is still under review, found that prosecutors concealed evidence that would have helped Stevens’s lawyers prove his innocence and “seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government’s key witness.”

After a prolonged investigation by the FBI, Stevens was indicted in 2008 on charges that he failed to disclose gifts from oil executives. He was convicted about one week before voters went to the polls, and Stevens lost his reelection bid that year.

In his first months as attorney general, Eric Holder moved to dismiss the indictment against Stevens and set aside the guilty verdict after reviewing evidence that suggested the DOJ’s witnesses might have perjured themselves and that the government withheld evidence from the defense team. 

Two investigations were ordered to review the DOJ’s handling of the case for misconduct. But Stevens died in a plane crash last year before the findings were released.

“It was really tragic, because this was somebody at the end of his career who spent a lifetime trying to carry out his mission and then he was killed and never really knew,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

“I think the Department of Justice should apologize to his widow.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) also called on the DOJ to apologize to the Stevens family, saying that anyone involved in the withholding of evidence from the former senator’s lawyers should be fired from the agency. 

“As a prosecutor, you have to have a nonbiased approach, and they failed utterly,” Hutchison said in an interview with The Hill. 

“The people who were doing the prosecution should not be allowed in the Justice Department ever again.”

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also told The Hill that the DOJ should fire the attorneys involved in the mishandling of the case. 

It is still not clear which of the DOJ attorneys who worked on the case were responsible for withholding or manipulating evidence. Two reports on the case — one by an independent investigator appointed by the judge handling the case and another by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) — are expected to be completed early next year. 

Leahy said he plans to do everything in his power to make sure the OPR report is made public; they are typically kept private. 

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Holder told senators that the OPR report was in its “last stages” and that he wants to make as much of it public as possible.

“That is up to the people at OPR,” Holder said. “I want to share as much of that as we possibly can, given the very public nature of that matter, and the very public decision that I made to dismiss the case.”

Holder has garnered some rare praise from Republicans his handling of the case. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a vocal critic of the administration on many of its policies, lauded the attorney general’s push toward reforming the public integrity section to ensure no future mistakes are made.

“If you look at the particulars of that case, the system melted down and trophy-hunting became sort of the focus,” Graham told The Hill. 

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“The goal from episodes like this is to reform the system. I believe Eric Holder has taken very seriously the abusive and unprofessional behavior and I have confidence that he will try to bring about reforms.”

Graham was one of several senators who called on Stevens to resign shortly after the conviction. Others included: Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Some senators would not comment publicly on the Stevens case but pointed to the DOJ’s reluctance to prosecute former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), which it declined to pursue last year. They said that perhaps the Stevens case made the agency gun-shy to go after other lawmakers accused of wrongdoing. 

Earlier this year the Senate Ethics Committee recommended that the DOJ investigate Ensign over allegations that he broke federal laws, including a lobbying ban, while trying to cover up an affair with the wife of a staff member.