U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan called “outrageous” the conduct of lawyers from the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, including unit chief William Welch and deputy Brenda Morris. He held the lawyers in contempt after they conceded having “no reason” to withhold the evidence.
“That was a court order, it wasn’t a request,” an irate Judge Sullivan said. “Isn’t the Justice Department taking court orders seriously these days?”
The hearing Friday is part of Stevens’ bid to have his conviction overturned because of government misconduct.
Stevens, 85, was convicted in October of seven felony counts stemming from gifts and home renovations that he did not report on Senate financial-disclosure forms. He lost a re-election battle a month after his convictions. Stevens had been the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, holding his seat for 40 years.
A sentencing date will not be set while Stevens seeks to have the charges thrown out or at least receive a new trial, but the contempt citation won’t likely help him much in that quest.
“I don’t know that it will mean a lot, but it is a sign that the judge is upset,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “Maybe his patience was just worn thin; judges don’t do that lightly. I don’t think Judge Sullivan would do that lightly.”
Robert Kelner, a white-collar defense lawyer who specializes in political-corruption cases and congressional investigations, called Friday’s developments “highly unusual.”
“It is certainly not every day that a federal court holds several senior Justice Department lawyers in contempt,” said Mr. Kelner, who is not involved in the case. “That’s an extraordinary development.”
Judge Sullivan said he doesn’t want to get “sidetracked” and will wait until the case has completely concluded to consider possible sanctions against the government lawyers.
Though Judge Sullivan could also withdraw the contempt citations, the consequences the lawyers face range from admonishments to fines and referrals to bar associations for possible discipline. Mr. Kelner said it is not likely the lawyers will be jailed.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the contempt citations beyond saying prosecutors gave defense attorneys the documents in question after Friday’s hearing.
“We will continue to litigate in court matters related to the jury’s conviction of Senator Stevens,” said department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney.
Friday is not the first time prosecutors in the case angered Judge Sullivan.
During the trial, he chided them for failing to turn over evidence that potentially may have helped Stevens. Prosecutors maintained they made honest mistakes, and the judge ultimately determined the misconduct wasn’t serious enough to warrant a dismissal.
But an unusual amount of post-trial activity has brought serious challenges to the candor of prosecutors, which Stevens’ lawyers are seizing on to ask Judge Sullivan to overturn the verdict.
First, a witness claimed he committed perjury and the government knew it. That was followed by an explosive complaint in which an FBI agent who worked on the case made allegations of widespread prosecutorial misconduct.
Special Agent Chad Joy said prosecutors purposely concealed evidence from the defense and that another agent, Mary Beth Kepner had an inappropriate personal relationship with star witness Bill Allen, a wealthy oil-magnate who gave Stevens the majority of gifts and renovations he was convicted of failing to disclose.