Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jim Clark and the State of Play


District Court Judge John Sedwick has ordered the prosecution to appear at a closed hearing tomorrow morning and persuade him not to make Jim Clark—former Chief of Staff to ex-Governor Frank Murkowski—to start serving his sentence. Clark pleaded guilty more than 17 months ago to a single count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and he has been kept out of prison since then because he is cooperating with the federal investigation into public corruption on the Last Frontier.

But Judge Sedwick seems to be getting tired of the delays in Clark going off to prison, just as the judge recently showed even more impatience with the slowness in sentencing former VECO executives and admitted bribers Bill Allen and Rick Smith, who have been cooperating just short of three years now. As the judge’s order says, he needs to figure out “how best to accommodate the tension between defendant Clark’s assistance in on-going investigations and possible up-coming trials with the need to bring the case against Mr. Clark to a conclusion.”

One of the considerations in this closed-door talk-turkey discussion tomorrow morning is just how much those investigations are actually going on and likely to produce more defendants and thus potentially more trials. One of the factors in that decision on future prosecutions, in turn, is the possibility that the Attorney General or other higher-ups in the Department of Justice will conclude that the best way to use the major failures demonstrated in some of the POLAR PEN prosecutions on the Last Frontier is to make them a teachable moment for federal prosecutors by closing up shop on the probe.

That teachable moment brought by ending the investigation would be the message that federal prosecutors who make glaring mistakes in providing evidence to the defense—a process lawyers call “discovery”—will not only face severe career consequences but also see their work go up in ashes. (Note that the six prosecutors currently under investigation about their work on the Ted Stevens trial have already faced some repercussions. All six have had to spend time with expensive defense attorneys whose bills will almost certainly only be partially paid by the federal government, but two of those prosecutors have been sent to the Justice Department’s version of Siberia. Joe Palazzolo of reported in June that Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan have been transferred from their plum assignments at the Public Integrity Section to the Office of International Affairs, where they are presumably advising the State Department on treaties and coordinating international extraditions while staying far away from the courtroom.)

There have been some big screw-ups by government lawyers uncovered in the case against former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. It also looks bad for the way the cases against ex-State Reps. Pete Kott and Vic Kohring were handled that the feds have agreed to let those two convicted former state legislators go free while new teams of prosecutors review the way discovery was done before those trials.

But commenter Howard Weaver is correct: It is beyond odd to the point of exquisite irony that some people—so far all Republican office-holders—who did seamy things are escaping punishment because a Republican-run (and apparently highly
politicized) Department of Justice blundered terribly.

Speaking of odd, two other points stand out:

1. It is passing strange that former State Rep. Tom Anderson is the only person sitting in prison tonight due to this investigation. While the evidence at trial showed his guilt, he is hardly the most culpable person uncovered by this probe.

2. It would be even weirder if the federal government got Bill Allen and Rick Smith to plead guilty to bribing former State Senate President Ben Stevens and then never charged Ben Stevens with any crime.


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