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Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

No Secrecy for Fumbling Sen. Stevens Prosecution

(CN) - An exhaustive 500-page investigation into the notoriously botched corruption trial of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens should be publicly available, a federal judge ruled.

A federal jury found the Alaskan senator guilty of felony corruption in 2008 for lying about home renovations and other gifts he had received from executives with the VECO Corp., an oil field services company.

The allegations caused Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, to lose his 2009 re-election bid. He died in a plane crash on Aug. 9, 2010.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct had dogged the proceedings from the start, and in 2009 the government admitted that it had held back exculpatory evidence about a key witness at least twice during the trial. A seemingly contrite Justice Department moved to set aside the verdict and dismiss the indictment a short time later.

The Washington court then appointed attorney Henry F. Schuelke III to investigate whether the six federal prosecutors committed misconduct. Schuelke and fellow investigator William Shields submitted their report under seal in November to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan.

The report concluded that "the investigation and prosecution of Senator Stevens were permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated [his] defense and his testimony, and seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government's key witness."

On Feb. 8, Sullivan said the report should be made public.

Prosecutors had said the information "should never come to light" because it would be irrelevant to the Stevens case.

Sullivan found no merit whatsoever to their argument. "While objecting generally to release of the report as unfair and prejudicial to the opposing attorneys' privacy and reputational interests, those attorneys have not specified any compelling interest that would meet their high burden to justify keeping the report under seal," he wrote.

Since the identities of the subject attorneys have always been public knowledge, and because no jurors took part in the investigation, there is no need for secrecy.

"To deny the public access to Mr. Schuelke's Report under the circumstances of this case would be an affront to the First Amendment and a blow to the fair administration of justice," Sullivan wrote.

"It is not an overstatement to say that the dramatic events during and after the Stevens trial, and particularly the government's decision to reverse course and move to vacate the verdict, led to a continuing national public discourse on prosecutorial misconduct and whether and what steps should be taken to prevent it," he added.

"The government's ill-gotten verdict in the case not only cost that public official his bid for re-election, the results of that election tipped the balance of power in the United States Senate," the 55-page decision states. "That the government later moved to dismiss the indictment with prejudice and vacate the verdict months after the trial does not eradicate the misconduct, nor should it serve to shroud that misconduct in secrecy."

The full report must be made public by March 15.

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