WASHINGTON - Anchorage-based assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Bottini has been wrongfully smeared by allegations he purposefully hid evidence from the defense in the case against Sen. Ted Stevens, his attorney said Thursday in the face of calls for Bottini to be fired and even disbarred.
"The special prosecutor decided not to file charges against Joe, but then turned around and publicly declared to the world that he was guilty of the worst thing one can say about a federal prosecutor, that he is dishonest and a cheater," said Bottini's lawyer, Ken Wainstein.
Bottini is still a federal prosecutor in Alaska and working one of the state's highest profile cases, an alleged militia plot to kill a federal judge.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and a group called Alaskans for Justice have called for the firing of Bottini and another prosecutor in the case, James Goeke, who was based in Anchorage but is now prosecuting federal crimes in Yakima, Wash.
Bottini's lawyer, Wainstein, defended him Thursday in front of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, members of which said prosecutors who concealed evidence in the Stevens case ought to be disbarred.
"I don't understand why anyone who took Ted Stevens' life should ever be allowed to practice law again," said Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, who said he never even liked Stevens but believed the prosecution of him was an injustice.
Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said he wanted to see a disbarment investigation of the Stevens prosecution team. "It was probably one of the blackest incidents in the history of the justice department," Sensenbrenner said.
A Washington, D.C., jury in 2008 found the Republican Stevens guilty of seven counts of accepting excessive gifts and failing to report them on his disclosure forms. Shortly afterward, Stevens lost his election bid for seventh term in the Senate. The Obama administration came into office in the same election and the new attorney general, Eric Holder, said important evidence had been withheld by the prosecutors under the Bush Justice department and the charges should be dismissed.
Stevens died in a plane crash a year later.
Special prosecutor Henry Schuelke last month released a scathing report on Justice Department misconduct in the Stevens case. He singled out Bottini and Goeke for "willful nondisclosure," and has suggested the prosecutors were driven by a desire to win at all costs.
Bottini's lawyer, Wainstein, told the congressional subcommittee Thursday that Schuelke's report is flawed. He described Bottini as a modest, 27-year veteran of the Alaska U.S. attorney's office, and a "model public servant."
"He's human, he makes mistakes. He acknowledges he made mistakes, serious mistakes, in the Ted Stevens case ... but Joe does not acknowledge, I do not acknowledge, and most importantly the facts don't acknowledge that he committed those mistakes intentionally in bad faith," Wainstein said.
Wainstein said Schuelke also failed to consider the chaotic circumstances under which prosecutors were working, including a prosecution team with little supervision and no one in charge, the time crunch after Stevens demanded a speedy trial to have it settled before the election, as well as the "combative defense tactics that kept the prosecutors off-balance once they got into trial."
Members of the Congressional subcommittee were unsympathetic, especially to the claim that combative defense tactics played a role. Sensenbrenner said Bottini was an experienced prosecutor and there were a "litany of errors" in the case.
Wainstein said Bottini repeatedly tried to bring evidence forward for disclosure and was rebuffed by his superiors in the Justice Department.
Schuelke was especially critical of Bottini's withholding of pretrial statements by Rocky Williams, supervisor of renovations that oil field services company Veco did on Stevens' Alaska home. Williams had told prosecutors he understood Veco work wasn't a gift for the senator but was being rolled into payments Stevens was making to a local contractor. Wainstein said that was just an assumption by Williams so Bottini didn't consider it exculpatory evidence and his notes show he planned to ask Williams about it at the trial.
Williams never testified because the prosecution team sent him home to Alaska, saying he was in poor health. Williams died soon after.
The Justice Department paid more than $1.8 million for private attorneys to represent the Stevens prosecution team as they were investigated. Some members of Congress have complained about that, and Murkowski said Thursday she has put language into a Congressional appropriations bill to require the General Accounting Office to look at if the expenditures were appropriate.
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