WASHINGTON — Colleen Walsh, one of the jurors who found then-Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens guilty in 2008, wonders every time she reads a story about prosecutors concealing evidence during the trial whether any of it would have resulted in a different verdict.
Walsh has doubts that Stevens would have been acquitted even if Department of Justice prosecutors had turned over to the defense all the evidence that they should have.
“Most of the information they seem to have held back was about the witnesses, which we were already told as a jury not to rate as highly as the actual evidence, the physical evidence,” she said in a recent interview. “When we were discussing everything, we said, ‘Let’s look at the actual evidence we have.’ We had boxes full of paper evidence. That’s how we formed our decision.”
“We were going by the physical evidence: We see this bill. Was it paid? No,” Walsh said .
The Bush Justice Department’s botched prosecution of Stevens, who was one of the most powerful politicians in the country, has led to calls for government lawyers to be fired and the justice system to be reformed. But none of that answers the question of whether Stevens was guilty of the charges that ended his 40-year career in the U.S. Senate.
Some of the charges that Stevens took excessive gifts from supporters and didn’t report them as required by federal law had nothing to do with the specific evidence tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution chose to center its argument on a specific buddy, Bill Allen, and the home renovations and other gifts he allegedly provided Stevens. Prosecutors improperly withheld information about Allen that would have helped Stevens’ defense.
But the trial included evidence of unreported gifts from other supporters as well, including a $2,695 Brookstone massage chair.
Stevens’ friend Bob Persons had the chair delivered to the senator’s home in Washington, D.C. Stevens said that the chair, which was in his home for seven years, was a loan. Emails showed that Persons intended the chair as a gift.
There also was a blue-eyed, white husky puppy that Bob Penney, a politically connected Anchorage real estate developer and sport fishing advocate, bought at a charity auction for $1,000. After Stevens admired the dog at the auction, the senator ended up with it, according to testimony. On his official disclosure forms, Stevens valued the puppy at $250.
The charges included a $3,200 stained-glass window from Penney and his wife, Jeanne, and a $29,000 bronze fish statue at Stevens’ home in Girdwood, Alaska. Stevens’ lawyers said the statue was a gift from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that was meant for a library to honor Stevens that would be built eventually, rather than for him personally.
Last month’s report by special prosecutor Henry Schuelke detailing misconduct by the Department of Justice didn’t address those elements of the case.
The report focused on the gifts that Stevens allegedly received from Allen, who was the head of the oil field-services company Veco and a major financial contributor to Republican officeholders. The Schuelke report didn’t take a position on whether Stevens was guilty of the Veco-related charges, but it concluded that the prosecution, by withholding key evidence, denied the senator a fair trial. Many prominent Alaskans have embraced Schuelke’s scathing report on prosecutors’ conduct as the exoneration of Stevens.
Alaska businessman Jim Jansen, the well-known chief executive officer of a company that delivers goods to Alaska, called the report an “affirmation of his innocence.” Jansen is a founder of Alaskans for Justice, a group that calls for firing two of the prosecutors and an FBI agent involved in the case. The group has held rallies in Anchorage and Juneau that featured speeches praising Stevens by Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Sean Parnell.
“Our beloved senator was indicted, he was tried, convicted and removed from the Senate under conditions that no one in our country should or will accept,” Parnell declared on the state Capitol steps.
Just before Alaska voters were to decide in 2008 whether to re-elect Stevens to a seventh full term, a Washington, D.C., jury found him guilty of seven counts of accepting excessive gifts and failing to report them as required on his Senate disclosure forms.
Stevens lost that election to Democrat Mark Begich. The Democratic Obama administration took over after the same election, and a few months later, the new attorney general, Eric Holder, said that important evidence had been withheld and the charges should be dismissed. The judge agreed and voided the guilty verdict. Stevens died a year later in a small-plane crash near Dillingham, Alaska.
Veco’s renovations on Stevens’ Girdwood home as well as other charges of unreported gifts from Allen – including a $6,000 generator, furniture and a Viking gas grill – formed the centerpiece of the trial. Allen, who’d been Stevens’ close friend, became the star prosecution witness.
Schuelke found that the prosecution had withheld information that would have hurt Allen’s credibility and boosted Stevens’ defense that he and his wife, Catherine, thought they were paying for all the renovation work. Schuelke told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that he thinks the information would have had a “significant impact on the outcome” of the trial.
Stevens’ attorney in Washington, Brendan Sullivan, described the prosecutors’ behavior as “stomach-churning corruption.”
“A miscarriage of justice would have been averted had the government complied with the law. There would have been no illegal verdict,” he said in a written statement.
But Brian Kirst, who sat through the trial as a juror but didn’t participate in the deliberations because he was deemed an alternate, said he’d seen nothing that would have changed his view that Stevens was guilty. He said the defense had focused on testimony, including from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, about what an honorable man Stevens was. But the defense never gave a good explanation of why Stevens didn’t pay his bills, Kirst said.
“Honestly, the prosecution had a lot of evidence,” he said in an interview.
Cliff Groh, an Anchorage lawyer who attended the five-week trial and wrote in detail about it on his blog, said he’d looked carefully through the Schuelke report and its description of the evidence that prosecutors held back. He has doubts that Stevens would have been acquitted.
“It is entirely possible if that jury in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2008 had heard all of that evidence, it would still have returned guilty verdicts on at least some counts, or maybe all the counts,” he said.
Groh said the gifts of the massage chair and the dog had hurt Stevens at the trial, as did the e-mail record of how much the senator knew about the Veco home renovations.
Groh said it was clear that Stevens had kept up frequent and regular contact with Allen while the Veco renovations were taking place, including going on vacations together. That made it harder for the jury to accept that Stevens didn’t know how much he’d received that he hadn’t paid for, Groh said. He said Stevens was also hurt by a secretly recorded telephone conversation in which the senator told Allen during the FBI investigation that, while he didn’t think he did anything wrong, “the worst that can happen to us is we round up a bunch of legal fees and might lose and we might have to pay a fine, might have to serve a little time in jail.”