Sunday, April 12, 2009

Special Prosecutor Probing the Ted Stevens Trial Prosecutors More than the Headline Caricature


The headline on the Associated Press article was “Low-key Harley lover running Stevens investigation.”

A casual reading of the article shouts: “Fun!” Henry Schuelke, the newly selected special prosecutor probing the work of the prosecutors in the Ted Stevens trial, drives a Porsche to work, likes fast motorcycles, and gives great parties even while avoiding grandstanding.

But the reader can’t just focus on the headline and the human-interest highlights. I’ve never met this guy, but I know he is not merely the coolest uncle you could ever imagine. You don’t get to be one of the most successful and respected lawyers specializing in white-collar criminal defense unless you’re real smart and real tough.

A more complete account of Schuelke’s personality and approach to his work can be found in the book The Man to See by Evan Thomas. The book is a biography of legendary lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, the founding partner of the law firm Williams & Connolly. That firm represented Ted Stevens, and Stevens’ lead trial attorney was Brendan Sullivan, a protégé of Williams.

While serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1978, Schuelke beat Williams in a public corruption trial in Washington, D.C. The wisecracking Schuelke worked during the trial to throw his iconic opponent off his stride. Williams owned the Washington Redskins professional football team. If the Redskins lost on Sunday, Schuelke would sidle up to Williams and say “‘Hey Ed, I’ve been busy. What happened? Skins win?’”

After Williams lost the trial, his firm asked the judge to throw the verdict out based on juror misconduct. After Schuelke asked whether Williams had learned this information before the verdict and tucked it away to use in case he needed it, the defense attorney had to go on the stand himself in post-trial proceedings and defend his integrity.

Williams ultimately got the verdict thrown out and the case re-tried in Philadelphia. He won the re-trial, but it was clear that he didn’t view his experience up against Schuelke as some sort of unalloyed triumph. “‘Victory?’ Williams said when someone stopped to congratulate him. ‘All we did was split a doubleheader.’”

Schuelke’s comment on his opponent’s conduct gives some insight into his nuanced view of lawyer’s ethics in ligitation. “‘Williams played the game with a little chalk on his shoes, but he’s no different from any other lawyer in a hotly contested suit. You take advantage wherever you can get it.'"


mls said...

I found this line from today's WP interesting: "Federal prosecutors in the District, for instance, were consulted about the Stevens case starting in 2006 but declined to participate, thinking that the charges were shaky, according to sources familiar with the discussions."

Steve said...

Nice catch Cliff.

MIS, guess I'd like to know more about the context of that quote. Taking on the Senior Republican in the Senate is probably never a good career move. I've been told that the FBI agents also didn't think much at the beginning of Kepner's investigation which now has about nine people convicted or pled.

Cliff Groh said...

MLS, I am also interested in the discussions between the Public Integrity Section and higher levels within the Bush admin.'s Dept. of Justice that led to the higher levels' approval of the indictment of the longest-serving Republican Senator ever less than 3.5 months before he faced a hotly contested general election. I also wonder what other charges were discussed and not approved.

mls said...

Steve- I would also like more context for that quote, but unfortunately the WP article does not provide any. I bring it to Cliff’s attention in the hopes he may be able to shed more light.

What I see as the fundamental problem with the legal theory advanced against Stevens is that the prosecution could not prove that the benefits Stevens received in connection with the house renovation were gifts. We know this because the indictment charged that these benefits were either gifts or liabilities. If these benefits were not unambiguous gifts, then it is difficult to argue that Stevens committed a crime by not reporting them as gifts. It is also questionable whether there was any duty to report them as liabilities.

My guess is that the US Attorney’s office was not comfortable charging Stevens with a crime for not reporting the house renovations when it could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they were gifts and that Stevens understood them to be “gifts” within the meaning of the financial disclosure statute. Whether or not they were influenced, one way or the other, by the fact that Stevens was the senior Republican in the Senate, I do not know.

mls said...

BLT says that the record of bench conferences was released last week

If you have copies and would like to post them, that would be helpful. I would be particularly interested in discussions of speech or debate.

Cliff Groh said...


I will try to review those bench conferences, but will probably not be able to get to them until next week.

mls said...

Sure, if you want to put the needs of your clients before anonymous bloggers you have never met. . .


Cliff Groh said...


Although I have never met you, you are not anonymous in that it is easy to figure out who you are. I would be even more impressed than I am now if your blog is your sole method of supporting yourself, but maybe that's just a measure of how good a blogger you are--

mls said...

If only I were that impressive . . .