In 1987, former Reagan administration Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan was acquitted of corruption charges after prosecutors presented 40 witnesses and 558 exhibits during a multi-year criminal case. After seven months of testimony, a jury of his peers acquitted Donovan on all charges of larceny and fraud as part of a subway-tunnel deal.
Following his acquittal, Donovan famously asked, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”
The same question may be fairly asked by former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who was the victim of one of the worst cases of prosecutorial misconduct against a politician in American history.
Alaskans are beginning to ask, “Did Ted Stevens receive a fair election? And if not, what should be done?”
In Stevens’ case, a federal jury in Washington, D.C. found him guilty on seven felony counts of failing to properly report gifts and home renovations on his Senate personal financial disclosure forms, not of actually receiving the gifts themselves. The verdict was issued October 27, 2008, eight days before Stevens would stand for re-election to the U.S. Senate seat he had held since 1968.
The record does show that Ted Stevens received some gifts and may not have been completely without fault in this matter. Prosecutors filed documents stating that Stevens received a handmade stained-glass window, a massage chair, and a sled dog, in addition to the home renovations that he paid for. Stevens also traded a 1964 Ford Mustang and some cash for a 1999 Land Rover. It’s fair to say that Stevens used poor judgment when he contracted with a political supporter for personal business and then relied, perhaps too heavily, on the contractor for accurate billing. But these gifts were not unusual for politicians and certainly were unworthy of a federal criminal case.
It is clear now that Stevens did not receive a fair trial. In fact, as The New York Times reported on April 14, Stevens would not agree to a plea deal that would have spared him jail time if he would only admit guilt to a single felony charge. The prosecution’s behavior raises many troubling questions about whether the election last fall, which Stevens lost, was fair.
The prosecutors sought and received an indictment on July 29, 2008, little more than three months before Election Day and less than one month before Stevens’ primary. The potential for such a criminal case to be used for political purposes should be disheartening to anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. As a result of this indictment, Stevens felt he had no choice but to assert his right to a speedy trial so he could clear his name and seek re-election. With the trial lasting much of October, Stevens could not campaign throughout the state.
In recent days, Attorney General Eric Holder decided to seek dismissal of the case against Stevens and the judge dismissed the guilty verdict. The Justice Department admitted that a key prosecution witness, Bill Allen, had made inconsistent statements and that the value of Stevens' renovations might have been $80,000, not $250,000, far less than prosecutors contended in court.
The prosecution’s notes of an April 2008 interview indicate that Allen said he did not recall talking to a specific person about giving a bill to Ted Stevens for the renovation work. This information contradicted a critical part of the case against Stevens, and was withheld from Stevens' lawyers at the time. In our justice system, government prosecutors are required by law to turn over exculpatory evidence. Indeed, the judge in the case, Emmet G. Sullivan, nearly declared a mistrial after learning of these prosecutorial mistakes. After dismissing the ethics conviction against Stevens, Judge Sullivan named a special prosecutor to investigate whether government lawyers should be criminally prosecuted.
Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut white-collar defense attorney and Yale Law professor, called the Stevens case "the worst display of unprofessional conduct I've seen in my career."
Stevens’ defense attorney Brendan Sullivan has said that his client’s name is cleared and that, "He is innocent of the charges as if they had never been brought."
"I always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed," Stevens said after the verdict was dismissed. "That day has finally come."
Separate from the prosecutorial issues surrounding this case, it raises more fundamental questions regarding the fairness of the Senate election that ended with Democratic challenger Mark Begich defeating Stevens by 3,953 votes. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spent millions of dollars attacking Stevens during the trial, leaving him with a 20-point deficit with one week left before Election Day. Stevens returned home and campaigned tirelessly, closing the gap to a virtual tie and seizing the momentum in the race. Stevens had never won re-election before with less than 66% of the vote. Alaskans are beginning to ask, did Ted Stevens receive a fair election? And if not, what should be done?
Alaska GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich said Begich should resign as senator and a special election should be held "so Alaskans may have the chance to vote for a senator without the improper influence of the corrupt Department of Justice."
For 85-year-old Ted Stevens, a man who flew military transport planes in the 1940s and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, he will probably never get his Senate seat back.
On November 20, 2008, he delivered his final speech on the floor of the Senate.
“My mission in life is not completed. I believe God will give me more opportunities to be of service to Alaska and to our nation, and I look forward with a glad heart and with confidence in his justice and mercy. I don't have any rear-view mirror. I look only forward. And I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me.”
Matt Mackowiak is a political and communications consultant and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.