WASHINGTON -In a stunning reversal, the Justice Department on Wednesday moved to drop all charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens, saying his jury conviction for lying on financial disclosure forms to conceal gifts and home renovations was so riddled with impropriety that it should be dismissed "in the interest of justice."
Prosecutors had been adamantly fighting efforts by the Alaska Republican's defense team to have his conviction thrown out. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. disclosed Wednesday in a statement that he had personally decided to reverse course and, in effect, wipe away not only Stevens' conviction but the underlying federal charges.
The high-profile case against Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, had been criticized frequently by the presiding federal judge for missteps by prosecutors in the Public Integrity section. Holder said he was reserving judgment on whether they committed misconduct but that he has ordered a full internal review of the Justice Department's handling of the case.
But in the meantime, Holder said he took the action in part because of prosecutors' repeated failure to provide important and potentially exculpatory information to the defense team. That included one incident that came to light in a court filing Wednesday that raised questions about the testimony of Bill Allen - Stevens' contractor and former friend and the government's key witness against him.
"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," Holder said in the statement. Justice Department officials said they could not elaborate on Holder's decision, citing U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's decision to schedule an April 7 hearing, at which he is expected to approve the government's request.
In a court filing yesterday, Justice Department officials said they had they found that one key piece of previously undisclosed evidence had been kept from the defense - portions of an April 15 interview between authorities and Allen, an Alaska oilman and former chairman of the now-defunct VECO company. Allen testified during the trial that he decided not to send a bill for all of his work after meeting with an intermediary for Stevens named Bob Persons. He said Persons left him with the unmistakable impression that he was not supposed to charge Stevens for the work on his Alaska chalet, even though the senator had sent him a note requesting a bill. Allen said he was told to ignore Stevens' note because it was sent only to provide a false record in order to protect the senator.
But in their post-trial investigation, the new team of prosecutors discovered that although "no memorandum of interview or [FBI] agent notes" existed for the April 2008 interview with Allen, two prosecutors who were there did take notes. And those notes indicated that Allen said he "did not recall talking to Bob Persons regarding giving a bill to the defendant," according to the motion seeking that the verdict be set aside.
"Upon the discovery of the interview notes last week, the government immediately provided a copy to defense counsel," the Justice Department said in the motion. "Defendant Stevens was not informed prior to or during trial of the statements by Bill Allen on April 15, 2008. This information could have been used by the defendant to cross examine Bill Allen and in arguments to the jury."
Stevens largely disappeared from public view after his conviction in October, after which he narrowly lost his re-election battle. On Wednesday, he said in a statement that Holder's decision will allow him to get on with his life.
"I always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed," said Stevens, who at 85 was the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. "That day has finally come. It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair."
Stevens' chief defense lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., was far more critical, saying that many prosecutors and at least one FBI agent had engaged in a level of misconduct in the case that was so "stunning" that it amounted to a case of government corruption.