In mid-September 2008, one of the first witnesses in U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens’ trial in a federal court in Washington, D.C. -- a huge trial and one that would seal the senator’s fate in Alaska and tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate -- was supposed to be former VECO employee Rocky Williams, who helped manage the remodeling of the senator’s Girdwood house.
That remodeling job was the crux of the trial. The government alleged that Stevens got much of it for free, a gift from Bill Allen, CEO of VECO and the senator’s friend. The case revolved around the fact that as a U.S. senator, Stevens was required to disclose gifts. In this case, prosecutors alleged, he didn’t.
The prosecution flew Williams from Alaska to Washington to prepare him for trial. The defense also planned to call him as a witness. But that would never happen; the prosecutors would make sure of it.
Had Williams taken the stand, the jury might have learned some things that boosted the senator’s case. Earlier in 2008, when a reporter interviewed Williams, the ex-VECO worker said that what Stevens paid for the remodel should have covered all costs -- and that he didn’t work nearly as many hours on the house as the government alleged.
He tried to say as much to the grand jury, which met to decide whether or not to indict Stevens, but he didn’t believe prosecutors were interested in those details being shared with the jury. He concluded they were just hearing what they wanted to hear and goading him on to say things that weren’t really true.
When prosecutors met with Williams days before the trial, they were disappointed again -- so they conspired to send him home before the defense could call him to the stand. He died shortly after Stevens was indicted. He never had a chance to tell the truth. Even though he told them otherwise, the government still included evidence in the trial, including Williams’ timesheets, that it knew wasn’t true.
Prosecutors say that Williams was too sick to take the stand, but they still insisted on using evidence that Williams told them in interviews wasn’t true.
This is just one of the many instances of what Steven’s lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, said was “government corruption that is shocking in its boldness and its breadth,” revealed on Thursday in a report on the Stevens case.
In another instance, the prosecution alleged that Stevens' home improvement project cost $250,000. But Allen -- the prosecution's star witness in the case -- asserted that the work performed was valued at around $80,000. That assertion, too, ultimately went undisclosed to Stevens' defense team.
The report is full of examples like these that show good people can convince themselves of the righteousness of committing grave injustices -- good people can buckle under bureaucratic pressures and make small decisions that ultimately turn them into the thing they’re seeking to eradicate.
Justice Department in disarray
A federal jury in Washington, D.C. eventually convicted Stevens of violating the law, and he was forever branded a corrupt politician even though the conviction was eventually overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. Less than two years after Stevens’ death in a Western Alaska plane crash came the report he longed to see while alive.
The 525-page report was compiled by special investigator Henry F. Schuelke III, appointed by U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan (no relation to Brendan Sullivan), who presided over Stevens’ 2008 trial. The appearance of prosecutorial misconduct during the trial, which ended with a guilty verdict, spurred an infuriated Sullivan to initiate the investigation after he threw out Stevens' conviction.
The report shows a Justice Department in complete disarray. It shows backbiting and bickering and finger pointing and general chaos. Bosses didn’t act like bosses. Prosecutors were given conflicting direction. Nobody was in charge, and nobody was happy.
“There’s no joy in Mudville right now with Team Polar Pen,” one of the prosecutors wrote. Polar Pen was the name of the investigation, dubbed such because it began as an investigation into corruption and the attempt to bring private prisons to Alaska.
The investigation eventually meandered into the oil patch, catching on its way a handful of state politicians. The big fish, however, was Stevens, the longest serving Republican U.S. Senator in history, and one of the most important men in the United States. To successfully prosecute someone like Stevens would be a career-maker.
As has already been reported extensively before the release of the report, the FBI and federal prosecutors corners in its quest to convict Stevens.
They did so by withholding evidence that would have been favorable to Stevens’ defense, including the bills that he did and did not pay for the remodeling of his house. The did so by witholding evidence that indicated that the prosecution encouraged Allen to fabricate testimony. They did not record and document interviews with Allen. They withheld evidence that Allen had had sex with underage girls, and had gotten one of them to lie about it by asking that she sign a false affidavit.
Another raven-haired beauty from Wasilla
More than 150 pages of the report is devoted to Bambi Tyree, one of those underage girls. Sarah Palin’s spectacular rise, and Stevens’ dramatic downfall, would in part stem from Bambi Tyree, a teenage crack addict, and another raven-haired beauty from Wasilla who left her mark on Alaska. Tyree, who Allen allegedly slept with when she was 15 years old, and who from then on tried, in his own way, to take care of her.
It appears that prosecutor Nick Marsh, who later committed suicide, led the effort to keep the Tyree information from the defense. Alaska prosecutors Joe Bottini and Jim Goeke seemed to agonize over whether they should. In the end, they didn’t.
Even William Welch, who oversaw the investigation, seemed to be negligent in his responsibilities.
He learned about the affidavit on Oct. 14 or 15 of 2008, in the middle of the trial. He vaguely tried to alert Stevens’ lawyer to its existence, but his reference was opaque. Instead of making it clear to the defense, however, he figured he would just give it to the Office of Professional Responsibility and let them decide what to do with the information. Either he never got around to it or OPR didn’t respond.
Instances like these -- of inaction from one party or the other -- appear frequently in the Stevens' report. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when nobody raises their hand and dares to tell the truth.
That’s not exactly true. There is one person who raised his hand and called foul. That person is former FBI agent Chad Joy, who is in large part responsible for the investigation into the investigation. Joy was an enthusiastic, idealistic young FBI agent. This was his first case. He soon began to suspect his fellow FBI agent and the prosecutors were not playing fair with the defense. He wrote a memo about it one month after a federal jury found U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens guilty.
Joy is no longer an FBI agent. He has forcefully declined to comment on why he left the agency. The woman of whom he was most critical, Mary Beth Kepner, who was Bill Allen’s lead handler, still works for the agency.
Of the six others heavily involved in the case, one of them, March, committed suicide. Lead attorney Brenda Morris is still a lawyer with the Justice Department, as is Edward Sullivan and William Welch. Joe Bottini is still a federal prosecutor in Alaska. Jim Goeke, who was in Alaska, is now a federal prosecutor in Washington state.
Alaska-based prosecutors take the fall
Also striking is how it appears the Alaska-based prosecutors are taking the fall for those who are in D.C., those with more powerful positions and connections.
Indeed, according to the report, the “simultaneous and long-term memory failure by the entire prosecution team, four prosecutors and the FBI case agent…is extraordinary.” But because of that memory loss -- of Goeke and Bottini -- those who were stationed in Alaska, far from the seat of power, are accused of being the ones most responsible of these acts.
Although the report makes clear that nobody is innocent here, only Bottini and Goeke are guilty, according to Schuelke “beyond a reasonable doubt” of withholding and concealing significant exculpatory information. Bottini is also accused of failing to correct materially false testimony given by Allen during his cross-examination of Stevens, which Bottini knew at the time was false.
Bottini’s lawyer says that if his client is guilty of anything, it’s of making errors, errors that should be judged in light of the chaos that the case wrought. The result of the report, he said, “is a good man’s human errors have been miscast as intentional criminal misconduct.”
Although Schuelke said that conduct was intentional, his charge was to find if they violated a direct order from the judge to turn over all material that could have helped Stevens. In other words, he failed to give them a direct order to follow the law.
The judge, apparently, is guilty of trusting those charged with prosecuting others who violate the law, to follow it themselves.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org