TOPICS > Politics

Justice Seeks to Drop Case Against Former Sen. Stevens

April 1, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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The Justice Department announced Wednesday it would drop corruption charges against Ted Stevens, the 85-year old former Alaskan senator who was convicted for lying on financial disclosure forms. NPR's legal affairs reporter Nina Totenberg broke the news.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: First, the case against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. In a surprise move, the U.S. Department of Justice today announced that it would drop all corruption charges against the 85-year-old Stevens.

The once longest-serving Republican in the Senate was convicted last November for lying on his financial disclosure forms. Soon after, he lost his bid for re-election.

To guide us through the case, we turn to Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio. She broke the story this morning.

So, Nina, it was a surprise.

NINA TOTENBERG, NPR correspondent: It was a very big surprise. I mean, this case has been plagued by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct not just from the defense team, but from the judge in charge of the case.

So I can’t say it was a total surprise that Eric Holder, the new attorney general, might want to review it. But to not only drop the immediate case, but to say we’re not going to retry it is a big bomb for the attorney general to drop.

And I suspect he was doing it, in part, to send a message throughout the Department of Justice. Justice Department officials have told me that he very clearly wanted to do that, that he’d wanted to tell lawyers across the board: Do not play fast and loose with the disclosure rules, because we won’t tolerate it.

Disclosure rules at issue

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, disclosure rules, this has to do with what one side tells the -- what the prosecution shares with the defense. What did Holder and his people find in here that bothered them so much?

NINA TOTENBERG: Even during the trial, and certainly after the trial, the judge repeatedly was accusing the prosecutorial team of misconduct. And the prosecutors during the trial often said, "We made a mistake, Judge. We didn't mean to, not to disclose this. We didn't know such-and-such information was there. And now that we've found it, we're happy to turn it over."

But after a while, he wasn't believing it, and he eventually cited them for contempt, I mean, top-ranking officials in the office of public integrity. And, remember, that's the office that Eric Holder started out in life as a young lawyer. He's an alum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just to help us understand, what does the law say about what a prosecution is supposed -- are they supposed to disclose everything?

NINA TOTENBERG: They're supposed to disclose anything that can be of any help whatsoever to the defense team. This is a Supreme Court case that dates back more than a half-century. This is codified in the rules of court. It's codified in the Justice Department procedures. This is a no-brainer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, to refresh the audience, it had to do with then-Senator Stevens accepting improvements on his home in Alaska, not paying, apparently, for those improvements...

NINA TOTENBERG: And other gifts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And other gifts.

NINA TOTENBERG: And other gifts from friends and lobbyists. These were the allegations. And so, for example, there was a star witness, Bill Allen. And he told one story to the prosecutors and a different story on the witness stand, and the prosecutors didn't give that information, their own notes to the defense team. And if they'd it, they would have used it in cross-examination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a theory about why the prosecution did not share this information?

NINA TOTENBERG: I don't have a theory. You have to assume it's either incompetence or malevolence, one or the other. It can't -- you know, or maybe a little of both.

You can't say this was a job well done. In the end, the Justice Department replaced the entire trial team, and Eric Holder has ordered a complete review by the office of professional responsibility. And if there's an adverse ruling from that office, this is a career -- this is ruinous for the careers of those individuals.

High-ranking officials involved

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are these individuals who are being having the attorney general pointing a finger at them?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, some are them are the highest-ranking people in the office of public integrity, and some of them are relatively young lawyers. But the people who are being held most accountable are the head of the section, the deputy head of the section, the head of the appellate section for public integrity. These are not inconsequential people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there's an investigation underway. What could happen to them?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, I suppose they could get fired. They could be sanctioned. You know, there are all kinds of possibilities. My mind hasn't gone that far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the attorney general, Eric Holder, new on the job, gave a couple -- you said there were a couple of other reasons you think involved in this, in addition to what the prosecution did. You said the senator's age...

NINA TOTENBERG: He's 85 years old, his age. He's no longer in the Senate. So if you want to have a second trial, do you really want to prosecute somebody who's 85 who's no longer in the Senate? I'm sure these are things that went into Eric Holder's thinking when he decided that not only was he going to agree that this prosecution was tainted, but that he didn't even want to try again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But mainly you're saying this will send a loud message, a signal to the entire Justice Department?

NINA TOTENBERG: A very loud signal. And these are the kinds of things that make everybody suck it up, and look at their notes one more time, and look at the files one more time, and say, "Have we done everything we possibly could?"

One other thing, Judy. Remember, this trial had a very compressed schedule. Stevens was indicted in July. The prosecution, I believe, started in September, and he asked for that because he was up for re-election. But that also is a prescription for error, and that's what we got here.

Broad investigation ongoing

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, does this mean the slate is wiped clean, as far as Sen. Stevens is concerned?

NINA TOTENBERG: Next week, the Justice Department will go into court, will say to the judge, "Please set aside the verdict."

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there meanwhile, as I understand it, this was part of an ongoing corruption investigation involving others, public officials in Alaska. What happens to that?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, that's sort of the $64 question, because there are ongoing questions about the FBI's behavior and prosecutor's behavior in Alaska. They've already convicted, I think, 10 people, including state legislators and businessmen and lobbyists.

There's a congressman who's in their crosshairs. Sen. Stevens' son, who was the president of the State Senate, is still in their crosshairs. What happens to those cases is an open question now, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is Sen. Stevens saying about all this?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, he wasn't around today. He issued a statement. He said he always knew that the cloud over his name would go away and that that day was today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what does this say about the new attorney general of the United States?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, I suppose this is a good day for Eric Holder, in the sense that he sort of was the tough guy, saying, "I believe in justice, not just prosecution."

But I guarantee you, Judy, this is a good day for him. No Justice Department lives for a long time without horrible problems. It just happens. This is a human institution, and these were human problems I suspect with this prosecution and human problems will happen to subsequent ones that will not be such a good day for Eric Holder at some point in the future, so he should enjoy today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio. Thank you very much.

NINA TOTENBERG: My pleasure.