Earlier this week, Judge Emmet Sullivan formally dropped the charges against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, thanks to prosecutorial misconduct. And Sullivan also announced that he’s appointed a special prosecutor of his own to investigate contempt charges against the six Justice Department lawyers whose string of missteps — the most serious of which involved withholding key evidence — doomed the case. That misconduct is also the subject of an internal DOJ probe.
Since then, there’s been a tangle of competing claims from all sides. We’ve seen some critics of the Bush administration suggesting that Justice intentionally sabotaged the prosecution, in order to let Stevens, a Republican, off the hook. Meanwhile, some of the more paranoid figures on the right are arguing that the entire prosecution was an (ultimately successful) effort by liberal DOJ bureaucrats to use bogus charges to create a cloud of suspicion around Stevens and thereby win another Senate seat for Democrats.
So it’s worth taking a very quick look at what we know about the backgrounds of the prosecutors in question — call them the “Stevens Six” — who are now being probed for contempt, to try to assess what’s going on here.
The Stevens Six:
1. William Welch II
Welch is the head of the department’s Public Integrity unit, which handles government corruption cases. In 2007, he was given the job after winning local plaudits for his work as a federal prosecutor with the US Attorney’s office in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he led a wide-ranging investigation into corruption in city government. Though Welch did not actively participate in the Stevens trial, he supervised the prosecution team as the head of the PI unit.
The Northampton, Mass native is said to have lobbied to take over the US Attorney job in Springfield — an effort that now appears unlikely to pay off.
2. Brenda Morris
Morris was the lead prosecutor on the Stevens case, and the deputy head of the Public Integrity unit. A Washington DC native who’s said to be “known for her high energy and snap one-liners at trial”, Morris has worked at the unit since 1991, first as a trial attorney, then as the deputy chief for litigation, before being appointed to her current post.
Morris’ assignment as lead prosecutor on the case — just days before Stevens was indicted — reportedly rankled some of the Alaska-based prosecutors who had built the case, as well as Welch himself. But the objections were dismissed by Matthew Friedrich, then the head of the department’s criminal division, and his deputy, Rita Galvin. Critics of the move say valuable time was wasted bringing Morris up to speed on the details of the case.
3. Nicholas Marsh
Marsh is a trial attorney with the Public Integrity unit, which he joined in 2004, after spending the previous two years at Hale and Dorr in New York. Soon after joining the department, he was dispatched to Alaska as part of the wide-ranging probe into corruption in Alaskan politics. As part of that effort — and along with Sullivan, Bottini, and Goeke — Marsh helped successfully prosecute seven one-time Alaska lawmakers and lobbyists for corruption. He reportedly had reservations about the decision to put Morris in charge of the Stevens prosecution.
4. Edward Sullivan
Sullivan, another trial attorney, came to the PI unit in 2006 from DOJ’s Commercial Litigation Branch. He teamed with Marsh and the others on the Alaska prosecutions, and also is reported to have objected to the Morris decision.
5. and 6. Joseph Bottini and James Goeke
Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the Alaska office, Bottini and Goeke played major roles in the succcessful prosecutions of Alaska lawmakers and lobbyists.
In other words, these are by and large career prosecutors, none of whom have obvious records of political activism on either side. These were serious missteps by veterans who should have known better — and an independent prosecutor will determine whether they were deliberate enough to qualify as contempt. But by all appearances, they were the product of incompetence, poor oversight, turf wars, and an overzealous approach to the job, which led them to run roughshod over established legal procedure — rather than of the overt politicization we saw, for instance, in the US Attorney firings scandal.
Perhaps the case is a good reminder, then, that for Attorney General Eric Holder, fixing that politicization won’t in itself fix all the problems of the Bush Justice Department.