Does the mess that befell the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens create such a cloud over the long-running Alaska corruption investigation that it's all but over?
That's a question heard with some frequency since April, when the Stevens case was thrown out and the FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors who were part of the broader Alaska corruption inquiry were themselves put under investigation.
The Justice Department continues to say the investigation is moving forward, though as recently as last week a spokeswoman would provide no details. Aside from assigning new prosecutors to its only Alaska case awaiting trial, the department has not demonstrated much activity in public. Before the Stevens case was dismissed, its record in the corruption prosecutions was a perfect 11-for-11.
Most legal experts who discussed the situation said that the team involved in the Alaska cases since the investigation became public in 2006 has been so tainted that they will be unable to play a significant role in any other case arising from the investigation.
But neither that restriction, nor the embarrassment and demoralization from such a public failure, is reason to stop now, said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a conservative-leaning watchdog group.
"I can see they're a little singed around the edges, but at the same time, they all take the oath to pursue the evidence of crime wherever it leads, and they do have a duty to the public to the degree that there's people out there that are selling their office in one way or another -- they owe it to the public to follow up," Boehm said.
Even if a related case touched Stevens himself, such as one that might result from the investigation of Stevens' son Ben, a former state Senate president, it should be pursued, said Boehm, a former local prosecutor.
"The question to me is, how do they go forward on some of these other issues and things that involve other people if there's a tie-in to Sen. Stevens?" said Boehm.
Should a connection to Stevens amount to a "get-out-of-jail-free card as a result of this bungled thing?" Boehm asked. "By any yardstick of justice, the answer should be no. Nobody should be above the law."
Former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea has sharply criticized the prosecutors and agents in the Stevens case, writing in op-ed columns and blogs that some might have committed crimes. He has been among the many supporters of Stevens in Alaska who assert that political and professional ambition got in the way of justice.
But he too says the broader investigation should continue to move forward.
"Corruption is corruption," Shea said in an interview Friday. Just because the government "did such a despicable job" with Stevens doesn't mean the investigation shouldn't be taken up by a new team, he said.
"They should absolutely continue with what's going on," said Shea, including examining "the interrelationship of people involved with Ben Stevens."
In October, a jury found Stevens guilty of seven counts of failing to make required disclosures -- the 10th time prosecutors led by the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section got either a guilty verdict or guilty plea in the 10 cases decided to that point.
But things went downhill quickly. In April, Attorney General Eric Holder, himself a former prosecutor in the Public Integrity Section, personally intervened, ordering charges dropped after a series of revelations that prosecutors failed in their obligation to turn over favorable evidence to the defense.
Ben Stevens, a former president of the Alaska Senate, was one of several legislators whose offices were raided in 2006 by FBI and IRS agents, though he has not been charged with a crime. While he was a state senator representing Anchorage, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in "consulting fees" and others from oil and fishing interests seeking favors from the state and from Ted Stevens. His Seattle attorney, John Wolfe, didn't return a call last week seeking comment.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has also been a subject of the investigation. Through his spokeswoman, he declined to comment last week.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning Congressional watchdog group, said the errors in the Stevens case were likely the result of a chronically understaffed and overworked public integrity team, not malicious prosecution. The situation was exacerbated when Stevens, hoping for an acquittal before the November election, demanded a speedy trial when he was indicted in July 2008.
Though prosecutors should be ready for trial when they obtain an indictment, the government lawyers on the Stevens case were obviously ill-prepared, said Sloan, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington for five years. Taking on a high-profile defendant with a top-flight legal defense under such circumstances could have the long-term effect of jeopardizing other cases -- and not just in Alaska, she said.
"I think it could harm all of these prosecutions," Sloan said. "Now that these prosecutors are kind of toxic, it's easy for any defense lawyer to trash the case that they're involved in."
It's like when a police officer is found to have lied under oath, she said. Everyone convicted in a case in which the officer testified begins clamoring for a new trial. Pending prosecutions might be abandoned if that officer's testimony is key.
"Some other team has to go in and start over and look at everything, and make sure we're not repeating these problems," Sloan said.
In fact, all around the country defendants are citing Stevens' case as a reason their charges should be dropped or that they should get a new trial -- even when none of the Stevens prosecutors were involved. One of the most prominent is former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat convicted of corruption charges, but he is far from alone.
'A LACK OF OVERSIGHT'
It's not as though Stevens' prosecutors shouldn't have expected push-back from his legal team led by Brendan Sullivan, one of the nation's top defense lawyers, Sloan said.
"Brendan Sullivan is known to cry foul against prosecutors in a heartbeat. They should've been prepared for that," she said. "And it's a super-high-profile case. He's the only senator you've currently got indicted -- how are you not pulling all your staff and letting other things fall by the wayside? How were these choices made? It's incomprehensible. And it does show a lack of oversight."
Anchorage activist Ray Metcalfe, an anti-corruption campaigner who himself made a run for the U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary last August, is so concerned the government might drop the investigation that he's begun a petition drive.
"Let me put it this way: If these investigations were brought to an end, horrific injustices would be being ignored," he said. If Ted Stevens got his charges thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct, then change the prosecutors, he said.
So far, Metcalfe said, he has about 60 signatures on his petition to Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller, and hopes to get 1,000 in support of continuing the investigation.
"If things are hanging in the balance, I think it could make a difference," he said. "It reminds the people that made the decision to let Stevens go that there really are victims here. This isn't one guy saying this is horrible, this shouldn't happen, you should do something about this; there are about a thousand people saying this -- don't stop because they had had a bad situation."
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.