Friday, March 16, 2012

Why Did the GOP-Run Justice Department under GOP President George W. Bush Prosecute Prominent Republican U.S. Senator Ted Stevens?


Following the release yesterday of the special counsel's report regarding prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case, several people have asked me why the U.S. Department of Justice under Republican President George W. Bush prosecuted U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a powerful Republican Senator.   This question has been asked twice by commenter dingerak, who wonders "Why did the Bush Justice Dept. pursue this case (and then blow it) for a senator like Stevens, who they would normally venerate and protect?"

The first step is to congratulate the questioners for recognizing that it was the Justice Department in the Bush administration--not the Obama administration--which brought the charges against Ted Stevens.   Some writers on the Internet cannot understand this, and instead succumb to some ideologically driven need to blame President Barack Obama for the botched prosecution of a powerful Republican.    In fact, it was the Obama administration's Justice Department that dismissed the case against Ted Stevens.   

Next we need to distinguish between the decision to prosecute and the subsequent errors and failures in the prosecution.    

As to the decision to indict, start with a small group of lower-level prosecutors in the Justice Department.   That small group of career prosecutors worked for years with a number of federal agents--including some from the FBI and the IRS--on a number of investigations into public corruption in Alaska known collectively as "POLAR PEN."    That small group of prosecutors reviewed the facts and the law and concluded that Ted Stevens had committed federal crimes.    In particular, that small group came to believe that the Senator's relationship with Bill Allen was corrupt (and seemed to be influenced in that belief by a perception that Bill Allen's relationship with Ted Stevens' son Ben Stevens was corrupt as well).   

The belief of that small group of prosecutors led to a push to prosecute Ted Stevens.    For prosecution to occur, politically appointed higher-ups chosen by the Republican Bush administration had to approve that decision.    

Two factors seemed to affect the ability--or will--of those politically appointed Republican superiors to stop the prosecution.   

One factor was simple timing.   By the time Ted Stevens was indicted in late July of 2008, the Bush administration had less than six months left to run, giving the political appointees less power over the career professionals below them on the organization chart.  

Another factor appeared to be the effects of a series of scandals and controversies within the Bush administration's Justice Department--particularly over the allegedly partisan dismissals of U.S. Attorneys--that by 2008 apparently made Justice Department officials eager to show that they weren't Republican hacks and were instead professional lawyers applying the law evenhandedly.   Lawyers for Assistant U.S. Attorney James Goeke, one of the six government attorneys investigated in the special counsel's probe, say in their filing yesterday that "some of the Department's then highest ranking officials" made the decision on the timing of the indictment of Ted Stevens while being "possibly driven by exogenous political factors" in that decision on timing.

The lawyers for Goeke--who was (and is) definitely a lower-ranking attorney in this federal hierarchy--don't lay out those "exogenous political factors" they suggest influenced the decision on timing made by Justice Department brass.   To indulge in a little speculation, one such factor on the part of those politically appointed Republican higher-ups might be a desire to give up a make-up call before the end of the Bush administration to prove that the allegedly in-the-tank Bush Justice Department could stand up and prosecute a powerful Republican.     

I will have a lot more to say later about the reasons for the errors and omissions in sharing evidence that led to the collapse of the prosecution five months after the jury returned guilty verdicts on all seven counts charged by the government.   One thing I will say now is that based on my coverage of the five-week trial in 2008 and everything else I know, there is no way that the trial prosecutors deliberately threw the case to allow Ted Stevens to have a winning appeal.

Commenter dingerak also asks why Ted Stevens and Bill were "such close friends" given Allen's well-known unsavory reputation.    I will respond to that question later.   

1 comment:

Gles said...

I have always been intrigued by the change at the Federal level U.S. attorneys....Cohen replaced Burgess.

"Cohen came to Alaska from the U.S. Attorney's office in Pittsburgh as the replacement for Timothy Burgess, who became a federal judge. Cohen was chief deputy for white collar crime for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and his boss, Mary Beth Buchanan, was close to the White House and its political adviser Karl Rove."

I hope you address why this happened and why the judgeship for Burgess which was so typical to re: incentive to leave a position.