Stevens: Cloud Lifted From Life
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. A stunning development today in a front-page political drama: Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department is dropping all charges against former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. The decision to void Stevens' corruption conviction was first disclosed by NPR early this morning. With more on the story, here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG: The saga of the Stevens case reads like a political thriller, with the denouement today when a new Democratic attorney general moved to void the conviction of a veteran Republican senator prosecuted by a Republican Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he's moving to set aside the Stevens conviction, quote, "in the name of justice."
The straw that apparently broke Holder's back was the discovery of more prosecutorial notes that were not turned over to the Stevens defense team as required by law, notes that were discovered by a new prosecution team appointed in February in the wake of charges of misconduct against the old team. Senator Stevens did not appear in public today, but his lawyer Brendan Sullivan did.
Mr. BRENDAN SULLIVAN (Attorney): We're very grateful to the Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder for the decision that he made today to drop all charges against Senator Stevens. That decision was justified by the extraordinary evidence of government corruption in this case.
TOTENBERG: Corruption by the prosecutors, said Sullivan. Indeed, the trial was marked by repeated revelations of material and government files that prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense, in defiance of the both the law and judge's orders - material that was helpful to the defense. For months, the judge railed at prosecutors for what he called their misconduct, excluded some of the prosecution evidence as punishment, and at one point, even cited prosecutors for contempt.
Watching all this from the sidelines was the soon-to-be-new Attorney General Eric Holder, who actually began his career in the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, the section that was in charge of the Stevens case. What's more, Holder knew the trial judge, Emmet Sullivan, well, from the days when both men served as local superior court judges.
As one Justice Department source put it, Holder knows Emmet Sullivan is no flake, that he's a sensible, cautious, diligent judge. Increasingly alarmed, Holder saw the Stevens case as not only an injustice, but an opportunity. Sources said Holder saw the case as a way to send a message to prosecutors throughout the department that playing fast and loose with the rules will not be tolerated.
In addition, today Holder ordered an internal Justice Department review of the prosecutors' conduct. An adverse decision from the Office of Professional Responsibility would be ruinous for the prosecutors, including the top two career officials in the Public Integrity section.
Justice Department officials said other factors played a role in Holder's decision to bag the Stevens case and not to ask for a new trial. The former senator's age - he's 85 - and the fact that he's no longer a sitting United States senator.
Meanwhile, in Alaska, it is unclear what the effect of today's action will be on the four-year-old federal investigation of public corruption in the state, an investigation that has yielded 10 convictions of state legislators, lobbyists and businessmen, and has in its crosshairs a leading congressman and the former state Senate president, Senator Stevens' son Ben Stevens.
Richard Mauer is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.
Mr. RICHARD MAUER (Reporter, Anchorage Daily News): That's the big question: What does this do for the ongoing investigation?
TOTENBERG: There are ironies aplenty in the Stevens case. The 40-year Senate veteran pushed for an early trial date because he was up for reelection. If he hadn't done that, he might well have been reelected. Stevens, the man who helped make Alaska a state, was famous for bringing federal dollars to Alaska, and led the charge to fund the Bridge to Nowhere, was hugely popular in the state for decades. A week after his conviction, he was defeated by a narrow margin.
In a written statement following Attorney General Holder's, Stevens said that he always knew the day would come when the clouds surrounding him would be removed. Today, he said that day has come.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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