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Court-appointed counsel issues report harshly critical of Stevens prosecutors

By Terry Frieden, CNN
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Thu March 15, 2012
The case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was thrown out in 2009. He died in a plane crash in 2010.
The case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was thrown out in 2009. He died in a plane crash in 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The case against Sen. Ted Stevens was tossed out after prosecutorial problems emerged
  • Prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that could have helped the defense, a new report says
  • The fate of the government attorneys involved in the case remains uncertain
  • Stevens lost a re-election bid in 2008; he died in a small-plane crash in 2010

Washington (CNN) -- A blistering new report reveals details about the intentional mishandling of evidence and other missteps by Justice Department attorneys in the flawed prosecution of then-Sen. Ted Stevens.

The report from court-appointed independent counsel Henry Schuelke was ordered by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington. It focuses heavily on the failure of the prosecutors to disclose evidence to Stevens' legal team as required by law.

The "exculpatory" evidence would have aided Stevens' defense, says the report, released Thursday.

The report details prosecutorial misconduct including encouraging false testimony at trial by the government's key witness against Stevens. That witness, Alaska business executive Bill Allen, testified on the disputed value of renovations his firm had made on Stevens' residence.

The report says the government introduced false documents to support the prosecutors' theory that renovations to Stevens' Alaska home cost more than Stevens paid, thus concealing a gift.

The report also says prosecutors declined to disclose a separate case in which Allen was accused of having sexual relations with underage girls, which would have seriously damaged his credibility. Schuelke cited a judge in a state trial who referred to "an ongoing investigation of Allen for sexual exploitation of minors and his attempts to suborn perjurious testimony from one of those minors."

Schuelke describes a series of Justice Department internal communications about what to do with what they describe as Allen's "shady background."

The report was particularly tough on Alaska-based assistant federal prosecutors Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, saying they withheld crucial evidence.

An attorney for Bottini said, "A good man's human errors have been miscast as intentional criminal misconduct. ... Joe is a man of honor and integrity."

When the prosecutorial problems became known to the court, the case was thrown out in 2009. In the meantime, Stevens, an Alaska Republican, had narrowly been defeated in his re-election bid. In August 2010, he died when a private plane he was in crashed on an Alaska fishing trip.

Stevens' legal counsel, Brendan Sullivan, said the report "provides evidence of government corruption that is shocking in its boldness and its breadth."

"A miscarriage of justice would have been averted had the government complied with the law. There would have been no illegal verdict," Sullivan said. "The report shows what the government did to obtain an illegal jury verdict and it reflects stomach-churning corruption."

He added he will take no position on whether criminal charges should be brought against the prosecutors.

Schuelke's investigation took two years and involved the examination of 128,000 pages of documents, he said.

The fate of the government attorneys involved in the case remains uncertain.

An attorney for Brenda Morris, the principal deputy in the Public Integrity section of the Justice Department, issued a statement declaring the new report clears Morris of any prosecutorial misconduct.

Another member of the prosecution team, Nicholas Marsh, committed suicide in 2010. Because he has died, the Schuelke report said it would not comment on his role in the case.

In a brief written statement issued by the Justice Department on Thursday, a spokeswoman called the Stevens prosecution a rare exception to the norm.

"While the department meets its discovery obligation in nearly all cases, even one failure is one too many and we will continue to work with our prosecutors to ensure they have all the support and resources they need to do their jobs," said spokeswoman Laura Sweeney. "But it would be an injustice of a different kind for the thousands of men and women who spend their lives fighting to uphold the law and keep our communities safe to be tainted by the misguided notion that instances of intentional prosecutorial misconduct are anything but rare occurrences."

Aides to Attorney General Eric Holder have indicated Holder is not likely to take disciplinary action immediately because an internal report from the Justice Department's watchdog unit is not ready for public release.

Holder is under pressure from senators of both parties to release the findings of the internal report. When it is released, Holder is expected to announce measures he has taken as a result of the Stevens debacle.

"We will endeavor to make our findings public when that review is final," Sweeney said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has taken particular interest in the case, and Thursday introduced legislation calling for new laws and rules on disclosing evidence for federal prosecutors.

CNN's Carol Cratty and Eric Fiegel contributed to this report.

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