WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Justice Department has so far paid $1.8 million for private attorneys to represent seven prosecutors facing a criminal contempt investigation in the botched case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens, and members of the Senate are saying it's inappropriate.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson made the government-paid legal fees an issue during and after questioning of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at a Senate hearing Thursday.
Four members of the Stevens prosecution team have been trying to prevent release of a 500-page report into their conduct by a special prosecutor hired by the judge in Stevens' case.
The special prosecutor, Harry Schuelke, is apparently not recommending prosecution, but has been sharply critical of the Justice Department employees, saying they improperly withheld evidence from Stevens' defense.
The Stevens trial judge, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, has ordered Schuelke's report to be released on March 15. But one of the prosecutors, Edward Sullivan, is appealing Sullivan's decision and has asked the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to delay the release of the report. A decision by the appellate court could come early next week.
The attorney general said at Thursday's hearing that the Justice Department doesn't object to the release of the report. He said "given the magnitude of errors" in the Stevens prosecution there is public interest in the release of information about what happened.
The hearing before a congressional subcommittee was about the Justice Department's budget request for the coming year. But on several occasions, senators from both parties brought up the Stevens issue.
Murkowski said the federal government shouldn't be paying to defend the prosecutors.
"$1.8 million to go to defend these attorneys who engaged in intentional misconduct is just stunning to me," Murkowski told Holder. Murkowski pointed to the summary of Schuelke's finding in November that there was "significant, widespread and, at times, intentional" misconduct by the Justice Department prosecutors.
Holder said the legal fees are a result of the Justice Department deciding it would be a conflict of interest to directly defend its own prosecutors who were accused of misconduct in the case.
The accused prosecutors were allowed to get private lawyers instead, "and under the regulations the Justice Department pays for those legal representations," Holder said.
Murkowski asked if there is a way to get the money back.
Holder responded that the accused prosecutors "have their own views of what happened" in the Stevens case and want the chance to defend themselves. He said this is not the first time the Justice Department has paid the bill for private lawyers when it can't defend its own people against accusations. This has "happened in a variety of cases, a variety of circumstances," Holder said.
Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson asked Holder at Thursday's hearing whether he is troubled that the prosecutors from the botched Stevens case still work for the Department of Justice.
Holder said that "depends on the nature of misconduct, what it is they did, the mistakes that were made."
He said details would be coming from Schuelke's report and a separate investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
Holder said the Office of Professional Responsibility report is essentially finished and includes recommendations for punishment. He said he expected any punishments to be public, although it's not clear how much of the Office of Professional Responsibility's report will be released.
The prosecution of Stevens, a longtime Alaska Republican senator who was found guilty in 2008 of lying on financial disclosure forms, happened during the administration of George W. Bush.
Stevens' convictions were thrown out in 2009 after the Justice Department conceded it failed to turn over evidence that would have helped Stevens. Holder, an appointee of President Obama, told the senators Thursday not to forget he was the one who moved to dismiss the charges.
"I would urge everybody to understand that this Justice Department and this attorney general made the determination that mistakes occurred and took the extraordinary step of dismissing the case," Holder said.
Texas Sen. Hutchison commended Holder for dismissing the case. But she said in a statement following the hearing that the Stevens prosecutors clearly concealed evidence and she is "appalled that taxpayer funds have not only been used to defend them, but according to the attorney general's testimony, they are still employed at the Department of Justice."
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-6016.