A special prosecutor who spent two years exploring Justice Department misconduct in the botched case against late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said “contest living” — the desire to win a big case — explained the failure to follow the rules in one of the biggest political corruption prosecutions in decades.
“[Lawyers] do not want to have to undermine our case if it can possibly be avoided,” investigator Hank Schuelke told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. “That motive to win the case was the principal operative motive.”
Schuelke said tight deadlines before the lawmaker’s October 2008 trial and a series of missteps within the Justice Department’s public integrity unit where leaders William Welch and Brenda Morris “abdicated supervisory responsibility” contributed to the evidence sharing lapses. The failings prompted new Attorney General Eric Holder to abandon the case in 2009; Stevens died a year later in a plane crash after he had lost his Senate seat.
Lawmakers from both political parties expressed concern that so much money — nearly $1 million to Schuelke and his colleague William Shields to conduct a special investigation; $1.8 million more for the Justice Department lawyers to pay advocates to defend them — had been poured into investigating government wrongdoing against a member of the U.S. Senate.
“I doubt we would be having this hearing if it involved a citizen who was not a U.S. Senator,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “And that disturbs me greatly…. I doubt those sorts of resources, that time and that effort, would be put into an investigation involving similar abuses involving the constitutional rights of other citizens accused of crimes.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who counted Stevens as a longtime family friend, has introduced legislation that would force prosecutors to turn over favorable evidence that could help a defendant long before the eve of trial. The Justice Department has objected, saying its new training programs will be enough to prevent future lapses.
But in the Senate, Schuelke offered some support for the idea of a reform with some teeth – one that could be enforced by someone other than prosecutors themselves.
“I believe you should consider legislation,” Schulke said, that would make clear the Justice Department needs to turn over all favorable information before trial, not just information prosecutors deem to be important, to defendants in criminal cases.