WASHINGTON — In a surprising reversal, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday moved to void the corruption conviction of former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and ordered an internal review of the prosecutors, saying their case was riddled with impropriety.
The high-profile prosecution of Stevens, who at the time was the Senate's senior Republican, has been criticized by the presiding federal judge. Holder said he was reserving judgment on whether lawyers in the Justice Department's public integrity section had committed misconduct.
But, he said, the prosecutors had repeatedly failed to provide important and potentially exculpatory information to the defense team. One incident that came to light in a court filing Wednesday raised questions about the testimony of Bill J. Allen, Stevens' onetime friend and the government's key witness.
"In light of this conclusion, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances of this particular case, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial," said Holder, who once served in the public integrity division.
Justice Department officials said they could not elaborate on Holder's decision, citing U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's decision to schedule a hearing Tuesday, at which he is expected to approve the government's request.
Holder's decision will probably put new pressure on a division of the Justice Department that once was known for its professional pursuit of corruption, but which more recently has been accused of partisanship and excessive zeal in its prosecutions.
Stevens, 85, was indicted last year for failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts and improvements made to one of his Alaska homes. Throughout the trial, Sullivan voiced anger at the division's top prosecutors, saying they had cut corners and concealed evidence from defense lawyers.
"How can the court have the confidence that the public integrity section has public integrity?" Sullivan said at one point. "This is not a trial by any means."
Still, a federal jury convicted Stevens in late October. The Republican lawmaker lost his bid for a seventh Senate term the next week.
In February, Sullivan took the highly unusual step of holding in contempt William M. Welch II, the chief of the public integrity section, and his principal deputy, Brenda K. Morris, the lead prosecutor. Holder then brought in a team of investigators to look into the Stevens case.
In the court filing, Justice Department officials said they had found that one key piece of previously undisclosed evidence had been kept from the defense: portions of an April 15, 2008, interview between authorities and Allen.
In the trial, Allen testified that he had decided not to send a bill for all his work renovating Stevens' home after meeting with Bob Persons, an intermediary for the veteran lawmaker.
Allen said Persons left him with the unmistakable impression that he was not supposed to charge Stevens, even though the senator had sent him a note requesting a bill. Allen said he was told to ignore the note because it was sent in order to protect the senator.
But Holder's team of investigators discovered that while "no memorandum of interview or [FBI] agent notes" existed for the interview with Allen, two prosecutors who were there did take notes. And those notes indicated Allen said he "did not recall talking to Bob Persons regarding giving a bill to the defendant," according to the motion seeking that the verdict be set aside.
"Upon the discovery of the interview notes last week, the government immediately provided a copy to defense counsel," the Justice Department said. "Defendant Stevens was not informed prior to or during trial of the statements by Bill Allen on April 15, 2008. This information could have been used by the defendant to cross examine Bill Allen and in arguments to the jury."
Stevens largely disappeared from public view after his conviction. On Wednesday, he said in a statement that Holder's decision would allow him to get on with his life.
"I always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed," Stevens said. "That day has finally come. It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair."
Stevens' chief lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., was far more critical, saying that many prosecutors and at least one FBI agent had engaged in a level of misconduct in the case that was so "stunning" that it amounted to government corruption.
Sullivan praised the judge (the two are not related) for forcing prosecutors to turn over evidence to the defense that they had withheld. He also praised Holder and his investigators.
Sullivan said the investigators disclosed even more potentially exculpatory evidence last week, and that "we were sickened by it because it clearly told the story of government corruption, as they were hellbent on convicting a United States senator."