When Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed all charges against former Republican Senator Ted Stevens in March, he won plaudits from several quarters — including the New York Times editorial page — for putting the law above politics.
A few career federal prosecutors perceive the decision more cynically, however. Stevens, a longtime senator from Alaska, had been convicted on seven counts by a Washington, D.C., jury for lying on a financial disclosure form. But prosecutors soon came under fire from the trial judge for failing to turn over interview notes to the defense, which an FBI whistleblower alleged was intentional. Those disclosures led Holder to toss the conviction and announce that Stevens would not be retried.
Despite the allegations, prosecutors contacted by The Recorder in three federal districts outside D.C. — who requested anonymity because they currently work for the Justice Department — said Holder’s decision rankled, partly because no official determination had yet been communicated to the field as to whether the DOJ personnel on the Stevens case truly acted in bad faith.
The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating, along with a special counsel appointed by the trial judge. If it turns out that the disclosure failures had been a mistake, then Stevens should not have been let off the hook without a retrial, these prosecutors believe.
That Holder dropped the case in advance of any findings feeds a perception among some that the department was too focused on public perception, at the expense of line personnel.
“The only message from the Ted Stevens thing is that D.C. reminds us periodically that people who run the department are political. You can never get away from that,” one career prosecutor said. “Just when you think you are about to, somebody comes along and kicks you in the nuts.”
To be sure, it is difficult to know whether the Stevens critique is a widespread undercurrent within the DOJ, or just a narrow band of disgruntlement. The sprawling department employs thousands across the country.
At the time, Holder described his decision to drop the Stevens matter as one made “in consideration of the totality of the circumstances” and “in the interest of justice.” DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller added this week that career prosecutors in the criminal division in Washington were on board. Holder believes DOJ prosecutors to be “some of the best attorneys in the country,” Miller said.
“As a former prosecutor himself, he understands the trying circumstances and the unfair criticism they often face, and he is committed to supporting their work one-hundred percent,” Miller said.
In a meeting with the criminal division in Washington, Holder said the DOJ would not apologize for doing its job when it did nothing wrong, according to a source who was there.
The attorney general also said he didn’t want prosecutors to “back off one bit” from prosecuting tough cases, this source said, because of criticism “from the press, or anyone else.”
— Dan Levine