WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. replaced the Justice Department's top ethics watchdog Wednesday, one day after a federal judge criticized the agency as moving too slowly in probing alleged government misconduct in the prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
Holder named Mary Patrice Brown, a lawyer in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, to take over the Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of unethical conduct by the department's attorneys.
Brown succeeds H. Marshall Jarrett, who will assume the helm of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. The executive office oversees all 93 U.S. attorneys offices nationwide.
The department said the moves had nothing to do with the Stevens case.
A jury returned a guilty verdict in the then-senator's corruption case in October, but on Tuesday, the federal judge who presided over the trial voided the verdict, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington said that prosecutors had held back potentially exculpatory evidence from Stevens' lawyers.
Allegations of such conduct had led the Justice Department's ethics office to open an investigation into the trial team that prosecuted Stevens. And upon taking office in February, Holder replaced the team with a new set of lawyers who discovered more undisclosed exculpatory information. That moved Holder to abandon the Stevens prosecution for good.
But Sullivan evinced his displeasure Tuesday with the pace of the department's ethics investigation and signaled that he wasn't certain the department could be counted upon to investigate its own misdeeds.
"The events of this case are too numerous and serious to leave to an internal inquiry by the Justice Department," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he was appointing Henry Schuelke, a prominent Washington lawyer, to help the court conduct its own criminal contempt investigation.
Brown, who headed the criminal division in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, now must oversee a probe into the department's vaunted public integrity unit, which handles corruption cases. Depending on what the investigation reveals, the lawyers on Stevens' trial team could be suspended or fired, and their law licenses could be in jeopardy. The judge's investigation could lead to criminal charges.
"Mary Pat has a stellar reputation and the highest integrity," Holder said in a statement about Brown. "I trust her sense of fairness and judgment implicitly."