WASHINGTON - Federal prosecutors handling the 2008 ethics trial of the late senator Ted Stevens of Alaska never conducted or supervised a comprehensive and effective review for exculpatory information, a court-appointed investigator found in a blistering 514-page report released Thursday.
“The investigation and prosecution of US Senator Ted Stevens were permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated Senator Stevens’s defense and his testimony, and seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government’s key witness,’’ wrote Henry F. Schuelke, the investigator assigned to the case.
The basic findings of Schuelke’s report, released by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, the federal judge overseeing the case, had been known since November. But the full report provides the most detailed look yet at the inner workings of the prosecution of Stevens, a long-serving Republican senator, as well as a series of failures by prosecutors to live up to their obligation to turn over to the defense information that could have resulted in Stevens’s acquittal.
Stevens, who died in a plane crash in 2010, was convicted of failing to disclose gifts and services from an oil services executive. Days after the conviction, he narrowly lost his bid for a seventh Senate term to his Democratic opponent. In early 2009, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked the judge to set aside that conviction because of the discovery that prosecutors had failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence. Both the Justice Department and Sullivan ordered investigations.
In the report, Schuelke expressed disbelief at claims by Justice Department officials that no one remembered a potentially crucial interview with a witness. This was not disclosed to Stevens’s defense team, as required by law. Schuelke said that “the complete, simultaneous, and long-term memory failure by the entire prosecution team, four prosecutors, and the FBI case agent’’ of the statement was “extraordinary,’’ “astonishing,’’ and “difficult to believe.’’
Still, he said, there was nevertheless “no evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that any one or more of them did in fact recall that information and concealed it.’’
As Sullivan had disclosed in November, Schuelke also said the officials connected to the case should not be prosecuted for disobeying a court order because the judge had not ordered them to hand over exculpatory evidence to Stevens, as the law calls for.
The judge said at the time that he planned to release the report in January, giving lawyers for the government and defense the opportunity to review the report and make arguments to keep parts of it sealed.
Indeed, lawyers for several of the government prosecutors filed motions to keep the report sealed, which Sullivan rejected. On Wednesday, an appeals court in Washington rejected a motion by lawyers for one of the prosecutors, paving the way for the release of the report.
A lawyer for Stevens, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., no relation to the judge, praised the report’s findings.
“The report confirms that the prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens was riddled with government corruption involving multiple federal prosecutors and at least one FBI agent,’’ Sullivan said in a written statement. “Some were more knowledgeable, and thus more culpable, than others. Nonetheless, they worked together to win at all costs in an attempt to convict a sitting United States senator in an ill-conceived prosecution.’’
On Oct. 27, 2008, Stevens was convicted on seven felony counts related to charges that he lied on his disclosure forms when he did not report that an oil field services company had remodeled a home he owned.
In the 2008 election days later, Stevens lost the Senate race, resulting in Senate Democrats gaining a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. This allowed them enough votes to pass President Obama’s health care legislation.
The case against Stevens began to unravel in February 2009, when an FBI agent filed an affidavit alleging that prosecutors had failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense as required by law.