- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2014

The criminal conviction Thursday of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell provided a much-needed victory for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, a once-elite unit that has seen a series of setbacks in high-profile corruption cases in recent years.

The unit, created in 1976 to prosecute corrupt politicians who abused their offices for personal gain, has had trouble securing convictions ever since a botched prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska in 2008.

Now watchdogs hope the success in the McDonnell trial will be a much-needed shot in the arm.

“I hope that it will represent a change in how Public Integrity operates because, in my mind, they have been overly timid in prosecuting since Stevens,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“It was a fair but aggressively prosecuted case,” she said.

Created in response to the Watergate scandal, the collection of investigators and lawyers was supposed to be the public’s protection in Washington, stopping lawmakers from using their power for personal gain.

For the next 30 years, the unit pursued federal, state and some local employees who had abused their positions, broken the law and turned their backs on the American people for whom they worked. Convictions included members of Congress, high-ranking judges and rich contractors.

According to the Justice Department website, the unit’s job is to oversee “the federal effort to combat corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials at all levels of government.”

But over the past decade the office saw a marked downturn in its ability to pursue wrongdoing and to secure convictions. A series of missteps, coupled with a drawdown in the workforce as employees were assigned elsewhere, had left critics wondering if the unit was simply a shadow of its former self.

It’s a concern that resurfaced during the trial of Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, amid cries that the prosecution by the Justice Department in a Democratic administration was a politically motivated effort to disgrace a rising Republican star. Some suggested that prosecutors overcharged the couple with their 14-count indictment after reports that the former governor last year rejected a plea deal that would have had him admit guilt to one felony count unrelated to corruption while his wife would not have been charged at all.

Even during the trial, analysts suggested prosecutors struggled to make their argument.

“If the prosecution has had a big problem in presenting the case right now, it’s that they haven’t done, since their opening statement, a tremendously good job in framing the case — telling a story and telling the narrative about what happened here,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime state politics observer, just before closing arguments last week.

Other observers noted that the testimony of the government’s star witness, Jonnie R. Williams, fell flat and that he lacked credibility during testimony for which he was granted a generous immunity deal.

But with guilty verdicts on all the corruption charges leveled against Mr. McDonnell, the conviction instead represents the first big win for the unit in several years.

The trouble began in 2008. After scoring a series of convictions related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the Public Integrity Section turned its attention to Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. An FBI and IRS investigation had turned up evidence that an Alaskan oil magnate had paid for the senator’s home renovation, valued at more than $200,000, ostensibly in return for favorable treatment.

While the oilman pleaded guilty to charges of attempting to bribe officials, Mr. Stevens maintained his innocence, and the case went to trial. A jury convicted him, and the senator lost his re-election bid.

But reports soon surfaced that the government may have withheld evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Stevens, including proof of the senator’s claims that he paid for most of the renovations himself and didn’t realize extra work was being done by the oil businessman.

Various members of the unit and the FBI were censured, held in contempt of court or reassigned. In 2009 newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked a judge to drop the charges due to questions of misconduct.

Insiders reported that Mr. Holder — who served in the unit when it was founded — was furious but, according to The New York Times, told employees that he still supported them and called them “among the finest lawyers in the entire government.”

But seemingly from that point on, the Public Integrity Section would have trouble securing convictions against high-ranking government officials.

John Wesley Hall, an Arkansas lawyer and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told The Washington Times immediately after Mr. Holder’s action that he believed success may have been going to prosecutors’ heads.

“I expect them to play hard, but I expect them to play fair,” Mr. Hall said at the time. “But some of them seem to think they are above the rules and can do whatever they want.”

In 2010 the group closed several long-standing investigations against lawmakers. Cases against former Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and former Reps. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, Jerry Lewis, California Republican, Alan Mollohan, West Virginia Democrat, and Don Young, Alaskan Republican, were ended without any charges being brought against the members of Congress, according to The New York Times.

In March 2012 a jury acquitted a group of defendants in Alabama who were accused of bribery and corruption. In May of that year, a judge declared a mistrial in the case of John Edwards, the former vice presidential candidate accused of campaign finance violations.

News reports at the time described the office as having “lost its nerve” or “being gun-shy” after the failure in the case against Mr. Stevens. Ms. Sloan said prosecutors seemed to be picking their targets poorly and said the way they prosecuted Mr. Edwards’ case may not have been the best choice.

And on top of questions about how they were conducting cases, the unit suffered from a shortage of workers. For several years lawyers and investigators were transferred to a different area that took national precedence: counterterrorism.

But questions about the unit’s ability to conduct high-level prosecutions have followed it into the McDonnell trial.

A bipartisan group of Virginia’s top lawyers said the McDonnell family should never have been brought up on charges and that his actions were not even considered illegal under Virginia law.

Five former Virginia attorneys general — three Democrats and two Republicans — wrote a letter in April stating that the Justice Department was overreaching in trying to charge Mr. McDonnell.

“Frankly, we are taken aback by the efforts of federal prosecutors to stretch the law to cover them,” the former attorneys general wrote in a “friend of the court” brief submitted to the judge.

DOJ lawyers are using an “expansive interpretation” of federal law to charge Mr. McDonnell that could punish the former governor for “normal participation in the democratic process,” the attorneys general said, arguing that they would have advised Mr. McDonnell that his actions were legal.

But officials with the unit seem to now have something to celebrate, even though Mr. McDonnell is certain to appeal the decision.

Mr. Holder, when informed of the verdict Thursday, said he believed the case had been “well tried” by the prosecutors involved.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said the McDonnells had turned “public service into a money-making enterprise.”

“The former governor was elected to serve the people of Virginia, but his corrupt actions instead betrayed them,” Ms. Caldwell said. “Today’s convictions should send a message that corruption in any form, at any level of government, will not be tolerated.”

Ms. Sloan said the McDonnell case was exactly the kind of case the unit should be prosecuting. State lawyers will rarely bring these kinds of charges against officials whom they know and work with, she said.

“It’s hard to expect that they will aggressively prosecute them; the relationships are too entrenched,” she said. “And it’s exactly why you need the [Department of] Justice’s Public Integrity Section.”

Ms. Sloan said the people shouldn’t assume the unit is completely working again yet.

“This is a good victory for the department, but we still have to keep an eye on what they do next,” she said. “There are other politicians out there with other cases pending.”

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