WASHINGTON – The legal team that defended Sen. Ted Stevens in his corruption trial has harshly criticized as "laughable" and "pathetic" the punishment handed out to a pair of prosecutors found to have engaged in reckless professional misconduct in the case.
A Justice Department report, released Thursday, said assistant U.S. attorneys Joseph Bottini and James Goeke failed to disclose information to the Stevens legal team that was favorable to the lawmaker. Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility concluded the failure to turn over the material was not intentional. The department imposed a 40-day suspension on Bottini and a 15-day suspension on Goeke. They can appeal to the independent Merit Systems Protection Board. Lawyers for both prosecutors disputed the finding of misconduct.
"No reasonable person could conclude that a mere suspension of 40 and 15 days for two of the prosecutors is sufficient punishment for the wrongdoing found in the report," Stevens's legal team said in a written statement.
"The Department of Justice demonstrated conclusively that it is not capable of disciplining its prosecutors," said the team, led by prominent Washington attorney Brendan Sullivan. "Apparently, prosecutors can violate the Constitution, deny the defendant exculpatory evidence demonstrating innocence and introduce perjured testimony without any fear that they will be punished."
Stevens was convicted in 2008 of seven felony counts of lying on Senate financial disclosure documents to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in home renovations and gifts from wealthy friends. Eight days later, he lost re-election to the Senate seat he held for 40 years.
The judge in the case dismissed Stevens' conviction in April 2009 after the Justice Department admitted misconduct. Stevens died in a plane crash on Aug. 9, 2010.
"The misconduct caused a jury to render an illegal verdict, which in turn resulted in the loss of Sen. Stevens's re-election bid. And, the balance of power shifted in the United States Senate," said the Stevens legal team.
"The punishment imposed is laughable. It is pathetic," the legal team concluded.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, both criticized the discipline as insufficient.
"What this report does not address is the concerns of many Alaskans and Americans deeply troubled that all this misconduct took place in one of the highest-profile cases in the 200-year history of the Department of Justice," said Murkowski.
Hutchison called the outcome of the disciplinary case "deplorable when compared to the recklessness these individuals displayed."
Murkowski and Hutchison have introduced legislation which would require early disclosure of evidence favorable to the defense.
The Justice Department opposed legislative changes in a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March.
"The Stevens case is one in which the current rules governing discovery were violated, not one in which the rules were complied with but shown to be inadequate," the department said. "Legislation along the lines that some have suggested would upset our system of justice by failing to recognize the need to protect interests beyond those of the defendant."
The department said that even under the current system's careful balance between a defendant's right to a fair trial and witnesses' privacy and safety interests, "we have had witnesses intimidated, assaulted and even murdered after their names were disclosed in pretrial discovery. Legislation requiring earlier and broader disclosures would likely lead to an increase in such tragedies."