WASHINGTON - When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., two months into his tenure, dismissed all corruption charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, it was an embarrassing nadir for the Justice Department section responsible for prosecuting politicians accused of misconduct.
The Public Integrity Section, long accustomed to exposing the official misdeeds of others, became the focus of two investigations of misconduct leading up to Stevens' conviction. The head of the unit left under a cloud of suspicion. A promising young prosecutor committed suicide.
Since then, the unit known for headline-grabbing cases - from Abscam to Jack Abramoff - has kept a much lower profile. An elite team formed in the wake of Watergate, it has sought less publicized cases, often at the state level. Its prosecutors have taken routine gun and drug cases for the trial experience. Congress, kickbacks and dirty Washington politics seemed to take a back seat.
Now, after years of retooling, the Public Integrity Section has tiptoed back into the public light.
Former Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., was sentenced in October to three years in prison for corruption. In January, former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife were charged with using his office to help a political patron. The section is overseeing the investigation into whether Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., used his influence to help a wealthy donor.
These cases could finally turn the page on the Stevens debacle, which officials believe unfairly tarnished the section. If handled poorly, however, they could deliver a crippling blow to a unit in which the Justice Department has invested heavily to rebuild.
The Stevens case exposed inexperience and poor organization. Prosecutors with the Public Integrity Section convinced a jury that Stevens lied about receiving gifts, but hidden evidence tainted the conviction.
Three weeks after Holder dismissed the case, Lanny A. Breuer took over as assistant attorney general, overseeing all criminal sections, including Public Integrity. It was obvious changes were needed, he said.
"They were in despair, morale-wise," Breuer said. "Public Integrity could have faced a mortal blow."
The section historically attracted rÃ©sumÃ©s from ambitious prosecutors, top young defense lawyers and talented law clerks.
But even before the Stevens case, the section did not have a reputation for winning trials. During the Washington lobbying investigation of 2006 and 2007, the biggest cases never went to trial. Prosecutors won guilty pleas from the major players: Abramoff; former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles; and several Capitol Hill aides.
Corruption cases were made easier by an aggressive reading of a law known as "honest services fraud." The law has since been struck down as too ambiguous. But for years, prosecutors did not need to show bribery; they just had to prove that voters weren't getting the honest services they deserved.
Defense lawyers and some former prosecutors say that made the unit complacent and landed guilty pleas that would have been difficult to win at trial.
"They had people who were bright young clerks who could squeeze anything into honest services," said Barbara Van Gelder, a defense lawyer.
The section tried seven cases in 2008. During the first year of the Obama administration, that number fell to two. Many politicians who refused to plead guilty saw their investigations languish. "I wanted someone who had tried cases and who could move cases," Breuer said.
In 2010, Jack Smith was hired to run the section. A former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, federal prosecutor in Brooklyn and war crimes prosecutor at The Hague, Netherlands, Smith had little experience with public corruption. But he had spent a career in the courtroom.
Smith reviewed his team's backlog. Some investigations of former or current members of Congress had stretched for years - for example, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. He closed many cases without charges.
"It's human nature to become attached," Smith said in an interview. "The really good prosecutors don't."
Closing the cases contributed to an impression that the Public Integrity Section had become gun-shy after the Stevens case. But Smith and others say it provided a new start.
Smith wanted a team that was comfortable in court. Yet trials often come after long investigations. So he called on colleagues outside the unit, looking for courtroom opportunities.
"We all wanted trials," said Edward J. Loya Jr., a prosecutor in the unit at the time. "And he definitely tried to get us trials."
In 2011, the section went to trial 17 times. The unit tried 12 cases the next year. Prosecutors charged a border guard with taking bribes from immigrants. They charged the mayor of a small city in Tennessee with running a gambling operation.
Prosecution is about momentum, Smith said. Cases should have a clear path forward, a stance that defense lawyers are noticing.
"They're going back to, 'If you shoot the king, you shoot to kill,'" Van Gelder said.
Not everybody appreciated Smith's style. Some prosecutors favored a slower, more academic approach. "When Jack came on, people initially were sort of skeptical," Loya said. "Some were turned off by how aggressive he was."
Some came around, Loya said. Others left. With hiring frozen, one of the few ways the unit could fill vacancies was through the department's honors program, which offers jobs to top law graduates. Because of that, the section is younger than it has been in years, officials say.
"They're stars, but they've got no experience," Smith said. "So we've got to find different ways to train people."
Younger prosecutors are assigned to work with more senior colleagues.
After the Stevens trial, Holder mandated training about the government's obligation to disclose evidence, which dates to the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.
Though officials point to that training with pride, it has not ended the criticism that prosecutors play unfairly. In December, Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, wrote that "there is an epidemic of Brady violations" nationwide.
Andrew T. Wise, a defense lawyer who has tried cases against the section, said he was glad it tackled the problem. But, he added, "I don't get the sense that suddenly, post-Stevens, the epidemic has been fixed."
Smith, now four years on the job, said he was not aware his team ever had a reputation for shying away from trials.
"That knock is the knock on bad prosecutors," he said. "Being able to try a case is what gets defense attorneys to take you seriously. It's what gets guilty people to plead guilty. I don't think anybody could say that about this section now."
By MATT APUZZO
The New York Times