Lead lawyer in Stevens prosecution resigns senior post

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 21, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- The lead lawyer who oversaw the botched prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska will step down from his role as the head of the Justice Department's public integrity section, the department confirmed Wednesday.

William Welch II will remain with the Justice Department but will return to a post in Massachusetts, said his attorney, William Taylor.

"While the ultimate result in the Stevens case has been highly disappointing professionally and personally, Bill knows that his management decisions, where permitted, comported with his own and the department's highest ethical standards," Taylor said.

Welch, along with lawyers who were involved in the day-to-day investigation, remains under investigation for the flawed prosecution. The Republican former senator's indictment was part of a sweeping investigation into corruption in Alaska politics that began unraveling when defense attorneys questioned the way that prosecutors and the FBI handled witnesses and evidence in Stevens' case and others.

In two related cases, former Alaska state lawmakers Pete Kott and Vic Kohring were freed from prison in June when the government acknowledged they may not have gotten fair trials because favorable evidence was withheld from them. A judge in Alaska is expected to rule later this year or early next year on whether to dismiss the charges or order new trials in their cases.

In Stevens' case, the Justice Department acknowledged that it had failed to share with the former senator's lawyers notes from an interview with the prosecution's key witness. Those notes contradicted the witness's trial testimony and could have been favorable to Stevens at trial.

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is pursuing its own investigation into what happened with Stevens' case. The U.S. district judge who oversaw Stevens' trial last October, Emmet Sullivan, appointed a special prosecutor to investigate irregularities in the prosecution. It's not clear whether Welch's decision to step down was the outcome of the internal Justice Department investigation.

Stevens' lead attorney, Brendan Sullivan, told McClatchy that he'd have no substantive comments until the two investigations have concluded.

"I want to be fairer to the government attorneys than they were to Senator Stevens," he said.

Among the first major moves that Attorney General Eric Holder made after he took office early this year was to dismiss the indictment against Stevens, effectively clearing him of his conviction last year on corruption charges. A jury had found Stevens guilty last October of lying on financial disclosure forms covering six years in office.

Stevens, who's now 85, was up for re-election at the same time as his trial and lost his seat to Mark Begich, a former mayor of Anchorage. Begich's victory helped Democrats in the Senate gain the 60-vote majority they needed to override Republican objections to legislation.

This summer, the special prosecutor in Washington was granted the authority to compel testimony from Welch and the Justice Department team that took Stevens to trial: Brenda Morris, the chief trial attorney; and prosecutors Nicholas Marsh, Edward Sullivan, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke. The special prosecutor, Henry Schuelke III, also was authorized to subpoena the former lead FBI agent in the Alaska corruption investigation, along with key witness Bill Allen and his attorney.

Holder, himself a product of the public integrity section, said earlier that it was "in the best interest of justice" to abandon its prosecution of the 40-year Senate veteran. More recently, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Criminal Division told judges at a conference in Seattle that the Justice Department had redoubled its efforts to ensure that prosecutors turn over to defense attorneys evidence that might be favorable to their clients.

In comments Wednesday, Breuer praised Welch's work as "a dedicated public servant" and called him "an extremely smart and thoughtful lawyer." In his time as the chief of the public integrity section, Welch oversaw the prosecution of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, an ongoing probe that so far has netted 20 guilty pleas and verdicts.

Breuer said they'd made a "mutual decision" about Welch's return to Massachusetts.

The Justice Department will conduct a national search to replace Welch, Breuer said. For now, Raymond Hulser will fill in as the acting chief of the section.

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