Justice Department moves to void Stevens' conviction

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has moved to dismiss former Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens' indictment, effectively voiding his conviction Oct. 27 on seven counts of filing false statements on his Senate financial-disclosure forms.

"After careful review, I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement released Wednesday. "In light of this conclusion, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances of this particular case, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial."

The Justice Department filed its motion to dismiss the case Wednesday, saying in it that "given the facts of this particular case, the government believes that granting a new trial is in the interest of justice." However, "the government has further determined that, based on the totality of circumstances and in the interest of justice, it will not seek a new trial."

Within days of his conviction, Stevens, 85, lost his re-election bid to Anchorage's Democratic former mayor, Mark Begich.

Since Stevens was convicted, his lawyers have filed several motions to dismiss his original indictment or to grant a new trial. The motions have been based in part on allegations in a whistleblower complaint by an Anchorage FBI agent, along with other allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that were released after Stevens was convicted.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who oversaw the case, scheduled a hearing Tuesday on the motion to dismiss the indictment.

"I always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed. That day has finally come," Stevens said in a statement released by his lawyers. "It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair. It was my great honor to serve the state of Alaska in the United States Senate for 40 years."

Stevens' attorneys, Brendan Sullivan and Robert Cary, issued a statement praising the Justice Department's decision. Stevens was traveling in Alaska and unavailable for further comment.

"This jury verdict was obtained unlawfully. The government disregarded the Constitution, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and well-established case law," his attorneys said, adding, "The misconduct of government prosecutors, and one or more FBI agents, was stunning. Not only did the government fail to disclose evidence of innocence, but instead intentionally hid that evidence and created false evidence that they provided to the defense."

"His name is cleared," Sullivan told a press conference. "He is innocent of the charges, as if they'd never been brought."

Holder said that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility "will conduct a thorough review of the prosecution of this matter."

The decision to dismiss the case appears to be based on a matter that came up during the trial: a discrepancy in the statements of the star witness, Bill Allen, the former oil-services company chief executive officer who plied Stevens with gifts, including renovations that doubled the size of the senator's residence in Alaska. Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska, is awaiting sentencing in his own case.

The Justice Department recently discovered notes from an interview that prosecutors conducted last April 15 with Allen, wrote Paul O'Brien, who's been handling post-conviction matters in the case since a judge cited some members of the original trial team with contempt for failing to turn over documents.

In the interview, Allen was asked about a 2002 note that Stevens sent him, thanking him for his work on "the chalet," Stevens' home in Alaska.

In the note, Stevens told Allen not to be "P.O.'d" but that Allen needed to have a conversation with one of Stevens' neighbors in Girdwood, Bob Persons, a close friend of both who helped oversee the renovation of the senator's home. It "has to be done right," Stevens wrote.

"You owe me a bill," Stevens' letter said. "Remember Torricelli, my friend. Friendship is one thing, compliance with the ethics rules entirely different."

Allen said on the stand that he was unaware at the time what Stevens meant by "Torricelli." Stevens apparently was referring to former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., whom the Justice Department investigated in 2002 for allegedly accepting improper gifts from a donor. The investigation closed, but the Senate Ethics Committee reviewed the Justice Department files and issued a public letter of admonishment to Torricelli, who then abandoned a re-election bid and left the Senate.

Allen testified that he didn't send Stevens a bill after the note. Allen also said that he had a conversation with Persons. He testified that Persons told him, "Don't worry about getting a bill, Ted's just covering his ass."

O'Brien wrote that the interview notes indicate that Allen said he "did not recall talking to Bob Persons regarding giving a bill to the defendant."

"That statement was inconsistent with Allen's recollection at trial," O'Brien wrote, and when the Justice Department discovered the interview notes last week, the government provided a copy to defense counsel. That information could have been used when Stevens' lawyers cross-examined Allen, O'Brien noted, or in their closing statement.

The Senate's Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called the Justice Department's move "a relief to Stevens and his family."

He said, however, that had the Justice Department acted last year, before the election, Republicans might not have lost the seat. That would have given Democrats — who have 58 Senate seats — one fewer seat toward a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.

"It was disappointing to lose the seat, no question about it," McConnell said. "No question that if this decision had been made last year he'd still be in the Senate."

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who assumed Stevens' role as the senior senator from Alaska, said she was "deeply disturbed that the government can ruin a man's career and then say, 'Never mind.'

"There is nothing that will ever compensate for the loss of his reputation or leadership to the state of Alaska," she said.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin echoed that theme.

"It is unfortunate that, as a result of the questionable proceedings which led to Senator Stevens’ conviction days before the election, Alaskans lost an esteemed statesman on Capitol Hill," she said in a statement. "His presence is missed.”

Stevens' replacement, Begich, said in a statement that "the decision by President Obama's Justice Department to end the prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens is reasonable."

"I always said I didn't think Senator Stevens should serve time in jail, and hopefully this decision ensures that is the case," Begich said. "It's time for Senator Stevens, his family and Alaskans to move on and put this behind us."

(Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News in Anchorage and Halimah Abdullah contributed to this article.)

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