The criminal case against the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens is long over but both sides are urging a federal judge to keep 67 banker boxes of seized evidence — the sum total collected in a long-running Alaska political corruption investigation — secret forever.
The materials amount to roughly 122,000 pages. Much of the evidence is private in nature and should not be released, according to a new joint court filing by the U.S. Department of Justice and a lawyer for Stevens' defense.
The elected officials targeted in the investigation are either out of office or dead. Some are ex-convicts.
Still, a number of documents seized in 2006 came from the legislative office and home of then-Senate President Ben Stevens, the son of the late senator and a Republican who is considering a run for governor. Ben Stevens was never charged with a crime. Messages left for him Thursday were not returned.
Some of the seized records at issue reference U.S. Rep. Don Young, who was rebuked in 2014 by the House Ethics Committee for improperly accepting nearly $60,000 in hunting trips, rides on private planes and other gifts. Young did not respond to an email sent to his congressional office.
The court filing Thursday outlines the immense amount of materials collected during a series of raids and searches that began in April 2004 and escalated in August 2006. That's when the investigation, named Polar Pen after a tainted scheme to build a private prison in Alaska, burst into public view with raids on offices of six sitting state legislators as well as on offices and homes of officials with Veco Corp., then a politically powerful oil field services contractor. Some of the legislators jokingly called themselves members of the Corrupt Bastards Club and one had hats embroidered with the name.
Six legislators were eventually convicted — one-tenth of the entire Alaska Legislature.
Most of the lawmakers convicted of corruption-related charges were caught up in a Veco-led effort to hold down oil taxes. A lobbyist, a halfway house mogul and two Veco executives pleaded guilty in the corruption investigation as well. An aide to former Gov. FrankMurkowski admitted trying to illegally channel campaign contributions from Veco to the governor's re-election effort but that conviction later was tossed out after the U.S. Supreme Court annulled the law under which he was charged.
As to Ted Stevens, he was a sitting U.S. senator when a federal jury found him guilty in 2008 of making false statements related to gifts and Veco renovations to his Girdwood home. In 2009, the new Obama administration threw out the case against Stevens, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Stevens died the next year in a plane crash near Dillingham, where he had gone to a GCI fishing lodge.
Before the dismissal back in 2009, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who presided over the Stevens trial in Washington, D.C., ordered the government including the FBI, the IRS and the Department of Justice to hold all documents, audio recordings, emails and other investigative files related to the Stevens investigation.
Normal FBI protocol in closed cases is to return seized materials to their original owners or destroy old evidence, the government said in a December court filing.
The FBI, still under that 2009 order, sought permission from the judge to get rid of the evidence in the Stevens case. The agency said it would still keep electronic copies of its investigative reports and evidence.
Instead of granting the FBI request, Sullivan in February ordered both sides to explain why the evidence shouldn't be made public by posting it on the online federal court docket where anyone can look it up.
On Thursday, with an extended time to look at the issue, the lawyers gave their answer.
Many of the documents are business, financial and tax records from individuals who were not charged and were not witnesses, according to the new filing by Justice Department lawyers David Jaffe and Cynthia Torg, as well as former Stevens lawyer Robert Cary from the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly.
"The public interest present in the original criminal prosecution does not automatically attach to the instant matter," they wrote. "Here, we are considering documents which expose private information about mostly third parties, many of whom had nothing to do with this case."
Besides tax returns, which federal law generally bars from public release, the records include business contracts, mortgage documents, bank records, invoices, phone records and travel records, the attorneys wrote. The documents contain dates of birth, Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and other personal data protected by privacy rights, they said.
When government investigative reports are released under the Freedom of Information Act, courts have ruled that names and other identifying information of third parties are exempt from disclosure, the court filing said.
The FBI originally scanned the 67 boxes of materials as image files, which were not searchable, the attorneys told the judge. This year, the FBI scanned them anew, a massive effort taking an estimated 20 hours per box. That's a total of 1,370 hours — or 34 workweeks, the lawyers said.
A review to delete private information would be even slower and more deliberate, the filing said.
"This translates into an enormous expense of time, resources and associated wages," the lawyers said.
The files of evidence were cataloged by FBI special agent Richard Fuller on a 30-page spreadsheet.
The spreadsheet lists items taken from both the home and legislative office of Ben Stevens by the FBI back in 2006. Items about him also were seized from Veco offices.
The Fuller inventory gives general descriptions of what was taken from or about Ben Stevens: an ethics complaint against Jerry Ward, a former state senator. Documents related to the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. Natural gas pipeline and oil tax documents. Bristol Bay land documents. Various financial records as well as those related to his paid board position for Semco Energy, the parent company for Enstar, Alaska's largest utility.
Some documents concerned his consulting work. Stevens was a paid consultant for private interests at the same time he served in the Legislature, connections that were investigated by federal authorities.
In an interview last month, Stevens said that "the outcome of the federal investigation pretty much answers any questions."
As a consultant, Stevens made money off fishing interests that benefited from legislation supported by his father. He also made $243,250 working for Veco but he never said what he did for the money, according to financial disclosures filed with the state.
On the witness stand in one of the corruption trials in 2007, a Veco vice president, Rick Smith, testified under oath that Veco bribed Ben Stevens.