Judge lifts contempt against Stevens prosecutors

Attorneys who prosecuted Sen. Ted Stevens learned Tuesday that they will not be penalized for failing to comply with a judge's order, but some still face possible criminal charges over their mishandling of the case.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan lifted his contempt finding against three senior Justice Department attorneys, but declined one of lawyer's request to eliminate the citation from the record of the case.

Sullivan was angered during a hearing on Feb. 13, 2009, when Steven's conviction on corruption charges was poised to unravel amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Yet Justice Department lawyers said gave no reason for missing a Jan. 30 deadline to give documents to Stevens' attorneys, and Sullivan took the rare step of holding them in contempt.

The contempt citation was against Brenda Morris, the department's No. 2 anti-corruption official and an instructor within the department; William Welch, who supervises the Public Integrity Section and has overseen every major public corruption case in recent years; and Patty Merkamp Stemler, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division appellate section.

Stemler had filed a motion asking Sullivan to vacate the contempt finding against her because she said she was not responsible for turning over documents to Stevens' team. Sullivan rejected her request, but said he would lift the contempt finding for all three attorneys as of the time that the documents were turned over — sometime later on the same day he held them in contempt.

Stevens had been the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, but he lost the Alaska seat he held for 40 years in 2008 after being convicted of lying on Senate forms about home renovations and gifts he received from wealthy friends. He died in a plane crash two months ago.

After the verdict, an FBI whistle-blower accused the team of misconduct and the Justice Department admitted that key evidence was withheld from Sullivan and the defense. Acting at the request of Attorney General Eric Holder, Sullivan dismissed Stevens' conviction in April 2009. Sullivan also ordered a criminal investigation into the prosecution's handling of the case.

Morris and Welch are subjects of the ongoing criminal probe. Stemler is not.

Another attorney who was targeted in the criminal investigation, Nicholas Marsh, committed suicide two weeks ago. Marsh's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said the investigation appeared to be wrapping up.