Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Off the Hook

NPR’s Nina Totenberg is reporting that the Justice Department will seek to drop the charges against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens who was convicted last fall of lying on his Senate disclosure forms.

Stevens was the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, however, he lost his bid for an eighth full term in office just days after he was convicted. Since then, charges of prosecutorial misconduct have delayed his sentencing and prompted defense motions for a new trial.

According to Justice Department officials, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to drop the case against Stevens rather than continue to defend the conviction in the face of persistent problems stemming from the actions of prosecutors.

The judge in the Stevens case has repeatedly delayed sentencing and criticized trial prosecutors for what he’s called prosecutorial misconduct. At one point, prosecutors were held in contempt. Things got so bad that the Justice Department finally replaced the trial team, including top-ranking officials in the office of public integrity. That’s the department’s section charged with prosecuting public corruption cases.

I am sure that there will be those who will crow about this as a vindication of Mr. Stevens and that it proves his innocence. The matter of his guilt or innocence is settled as far as the legal system is concerned, but what it actually proves is the incompetence of the Bush administration’s Justice Department, and that’s really not something to brag about.

The other troubling aspect of this is that it makes you wonder how many other cases prosecuted by the Department of Justice can be called into question under the rubric of prosecutorial misconduct. For example, what does this portend for the case against former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat who was convicted of bribery and has all the earmarks of being a put-up job by a vengeful Bush administration against him?

In a way, I have some sympathy for Mr. Stevens; he’s 85, he lost his job, and he has to live in the same state as Sarah Palin. That’s punishment enough.