WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday defended the $1.8 million in federal money spent helping prosecutors fight charges that they criminally mishandled the botched case against the late former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
One of those Justice Department prosecutors, Edward Sullivan, has filed a last-minute appeal attempting to keep an investigative report on the prosecutorial misconduct from being released to the public.
Senators returned repeatedly to the Stevens issue Thursday while Holder was making his pitch for the Justice Department's budget request in front of a congressional subcommittee. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski criticized the federal money spent since 2009 to defend the prosecutors.
"$1.8 million to go to defend these attorneys who engaged in intentional misconduct is just stunning to me," Murkowski told Holder.
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Murkowski said taxpayers shouldn't be paying the bill. She pointed to court-appointed investigator Harry Schuelke's finding in November that there was "significant, widespread and, at times, intentional" misconduct by the Justice Department prosecutors in the Stevens case.
Stevens was convicted in federal court in 2008 of lying on financial disclosure forms. Those convictions were thrown in out in 2009 after Holder cited evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
Stevens died in 2010 in a plane crash.
Holder said the legal fees are a result of the Justice Department deciding it would be a conflict of interest to directly defend its own prosecutors who were accused of misconduct in the case.
The accused prosecutors were allowed to get private lawyers instead, "and under the regulations the Justice Department pays for those legal representations," Holder said.
Murkowski asked if there was a way to get the money back.
Holder responded that the accused prosecutors "have their own views of what happened," in the Stevens case and want the chance to defend themselves. He said this is not the first time the Justice Department has paid the bill for private lawyers when it can't defend its own people against accusations. This has "happened in a variety of cases, a variety of circumstances," Holder said.
Details on what went wrong with the Stevens prosecution should come next week, unless a Washington, D.C., appeals court decides otherwise.
A federal judge has ordered that investigator Schuelke's 500-plus page report on prosecutorial misconduct in the case be made public next Thursday. Four of the attorneys who are under investigation objected to the release of the report, and one of them, Sullivan, filed the court appeal seeking to stop next week's release.
Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson asked Holder at Thursday's hearing whether he was troubled that the prosecutors from the botched Stevens case still work for the Justice Department.
Holder said that "depends on the nature of misconduct, what it is they did, the mistakes that were made."
He said details would be coming from Schuelke's report and a separate investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
Holder said the Office of Professional Responsibility report is essentially finished and includes recommendations for punishment. He said he expected any punishments to be public, although it's not clear how much of that report will be released.
The prosecution of Stevens, a longtime Alaska Republican senator who was found guilty in 2008 of lying on financial disclosure forms, occurred during the George W. Bush administration.
Holder, an appointee of President Barack Obama, told the senators Thursday not to forget he was the one who moved to dismiss the charges in 2009 after the Justice Department conceded it failed to turn over evidence that would have helped Stevens.
"I would urge everybody to understand that this Justice Department and this attorney general made the determination that mistakes occurred and took the extraordinary step of dismissing the case," Holder said.
Hutchison said she commends Holder for dismissing the case. But she said the Stevens prosecutors clearly concealed evidence and she is "appalled that taxpayer funds have not only been used to defend them, but according to the attorney general's testimony, they are still employed at the Department of Justice."
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