- Associated Press - Monday, August 30, 2010

The Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section has a storied 34-year history of pursuing corruption in government and safeguarding the public trust.

That trust took a hit, however, when some of the unit’s prosecutors failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defense in the high-profile criminal trial of Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who died earlier this month in a plane crash.

Now Jack Smith, a 41-year-old prosecutor with a love for courtroom work and an impressive record, has been brought in to restore the elite unit’s credibility.

Before Mr. Stevens, Public Integrity’s renown was built on large successes - such as the prosecution of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and convictions of federal and state judges, members of Congress and state legislators, military officers, federal lawmen and bureaucrats and their state counterparts over the years.

But its stumble - not disclosing evidence favorable to Mr. Stevens’ defense team as Supreme Court precedent requires - was equally large. It was so serious that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., one of the section’s distinguished alums, stepped in and asked a federal judge in April to throw out the senator’s convictions.

At the time of the Stevens debacle, Mr. Smith was overseeing all investigations for the international war crimes office at The Hague in the Netherlands. He’d read about the Stevens case. Offered the chance to take over Public Integrity, he couldn’t stay away.

“I had a dream job and I had no desire to leave it, but opportunities like this don’t come up very often,” Mr. Smith said in an interview. “I left the dream job for a better one.”

Mr. Smith said he arrived with an open mind, and “I found the unit I inherited operating at a high level. I have no excuses if we don’t achieve great things.”

Mr. Smith sees his job as serving people like his parents and the values they instilled as he grew up in the upstate New York town of Clay: “They pay their taxes, follow the rules and they expect their public officials to do the same.”

The new chief is in charge of politically sensitive criminal investigations he will neither discuss nor even acknowledge. They are known to include a probe of whether Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, conspired with an ex-aide to violate lobbying restrictions.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Mr. Smith’s first legal job was in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

“There were 40 or 50 of us who started together and all of us thought we wanted to be trial attorneys,” Mr. Smith recalled.

Accounts of Mr. Smith’s work ethic are legion. He spent a weekend sleeping in the hallway of a New York apartment building so he could intercept a victim who was afraid to testify in a domestic violence case. After what Mr. Smith calls “a long, long talk,” the woman took the stand.

His next stop was the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, where he was in command of some of the most high-profile cases in the city, including the prosecution of police officers in the sodomy of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

But he’s had setbacks too: In a recent 2-1 decision, a federal appeals court dismissed a death sentence Mr. Smith won against a man for killing two New York police officers. The majority found Mr. Smith violated defendant Ronell Wilson’s constitutional rights by suggesting to the jury during the trial’s penalty phase that Mr. Wilson’s decisions to exercise his rights to go to trial and to not testify should call into question the defendant’s post-conviction expression of remorse. The dissenting judge said an error, if there was one, had no effect on the jury.

The head of Justice’s criminal division, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, praises Mr. Smith’s work: “I have the best guy I could have in that job.”

But repercussions from the Stevens case still echo.

When the facts don’t warrant a prosecution, “you have to be able to admit that if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Mr. Smith said. “I think that’s hard for people to do and having been a prosecutor for 15 years that is something I can do.”

And he has backed up that promise repeatedly in recent months. He closed long-running investigations of three Republican lawmakers - former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Don Young of Alaska and former Rep. John Doolittle of California - without bringing charges. And adhering strictly to policy, Mr. Smith left it to the other side to announce the closures.



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