U.S. Justice Department prosecutors admitted a serious evidence mistake had been made, but had urged the judge to allow the trial to go forward. They said the oversight was not serious enough to warrant dismissing the case or ordering a new trial.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said he had lost confidence in the ability of the prosecutors to turn over helpful evidence to the defense.
He adjourned the trial until Monday to give defense lawyers time to review new information that he ordered the prosecutors to turn over.
According to Bloomberg News, U.S. Justice Department prosecutor Brenda Brenda Morris told Sullivan the government has “self-reported” the violation to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
“So what,” Sullivan responded.
Earlier in the day, the judge crossly halted Stevens’ corruption trial after the veteran Alaska politician’s attorney said prosecutors withheld evidence that would be helpful to their defense.
Morris admitted a mistake had been made in not sharing some evidence until Wednesday, but asked the judge to allow the trial to continue. “We are human and we made an error,” she said, according to Reuters. “It was a mistake.”
But Judge Sullivan sent the jury home for the day, saying “Maybe they’ll come back tomorrow for further service, maybe they won’t,” according to the Washington Times.
The judge also instructed both sides to file briefs about the revelation and return to court at 4:30 p.m. to hear motions to end the case or impose sanctions against the government.
“The integrity of this proceeding has been breached,” Sullivan said, his voice rising.
The new information involved an interview by an FBI agent with Bill Allen, the prosecution’s star witness. In the interview, Allen said he believed Stevens and his wife would have paid for the renovations to their home in Alaska if Allen had sent them a bill — a point defense attorney Brendan Sullivan said he would have made in his opening statement if he had known.
The new evidence involved an interview that had been turned over to the defense, but the key part of what Allen said — that the couple would pay if they had been sent a bill — had been blacked out. The judge ordered the prosecutors to turn over to the defense all FBI interviews with witnesses without any redactions.
Prosecutors notified the defense about the information only late Wednesday, after Allen finished his second day of testimony.
Stevens is charged with failing to disclose on his Senate financial disclosure forms more than $250,000 in gifts from Allen and his company, VECO Corp., including extensive home renovations without charge.
The mistake’s disclosure further embarrassed the Justice Department during the high-profile public corruption case, now in its second week. Judge Sullivan also criticized the prosecution earlier this week, saying Monday that he was “flabbergasted” that the government allowed a potentially important witness to return to Alaska, even though he had been subpoenaed to testify. Defense attorneys said the witness could have helped their case.
Stevens normally sits expressionless during the trial, but during Thursday’s session he nodded his head vigorously while the judge rebuked the prosecutors.
The jury had been expected on Thursday to hear secretly recorded audiotapes of phone conversations between Allen and Stevens, the longest-serving Senate Republican.
Prosecutors say the tapes back up testimony earlier this week by Allen that he never billed Stevens for work by VECO employees that helped turn a modest A-frame into a two-story home with a garage, sauna, wine cellar and wraparound porches. Allen told the jury he didn’t want his fishing and drinking buddy to pay “because I liked him,” according to the Associated Press.
On Wednesday, prosecutors introduced e-mails and handwritten thank-you notes from the Alaska senator, including one in 2002 telling Allen, “You owe me a bill,” and citing ethics rules.
Stevens went on to say he’d asked a mutual friend to speak with Allen about the topic. But Allen said that when he spoke to the friend, Bob Persons, the message was quite different.
“Bill, don’t worry about getting a bill,” Allen claimed Persons said. “Ted’s just covering his ass.”
The senator acknowledges that, because he was working in Washington, he asked Allen to oversee the project. But Stevens says he was adamant that he pay all the bills and had no idea Allen was paying many of the costs himself.
In earlier testimony, Allen said he had Veco workers install a generator at Stevens’ house in 1999 after the senator asked him for one in case he lost power because of the millennium computer bug. Allen said the generator cost about $6,000.
That year, the senator also asked him to swap cars. Allen testified that he gave Stevens a new $44,000 Land Rover in exchange for a rare “1964 1/2 ” Mustang worth at most $20,000. Stevens also gave Allen a $5,000 check, the former executive testified.
The patriarch of Alaska politics for generations has been stuck in the courtroom as a Democratic opponent back home mounts a strong challenge to the seat Stevens, 84, has held for 40 years.
His opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, accused the senator on Thursday of ducking debates and challenged him to square off, “any day, any schedule.”