In a remarkable order, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the Justice Department lawyers who mishandled the prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska). The order reflects a degree of dissatisfaction and distrust over the Justice Department’s own internal investigation.
The decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to drop the case was portrayed as an act of self-discipline by the Justice Department. However, it also served to try to shutdown any further sanctions and investigation by the court. The Court was already moving to take the same actions and it was clear that, if the case remained in court, further sanctions and investigations were on the way. The Justice Department appears to have let Stevens walk in the hopes that it would be able to stop further sanctions against itself and continued embarrassment. It did not work. Judge Sullivan was not buying it. After all, the Justice Department did everything that it could to stop this inquiry and only had this moral awakening on the eve of another hearing and expected sanctions.
The contempt proceedings will focus on William Welch II, chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section; Brenda Morris, his principal deputy and former lead prosecutor in the case; public integrity prosecutors Edward Sullivan and Nick Marsh; and Alaska-based assistant U.S. attorneys James Goeke and Joseph Bottini. However, there were clearly high-ranking career Justice officials and political appointees who were aware of this misconduct and supported it. For months, the Justice Department showed open contempt of the court. Such a position had to have been approved by supervisors or higher ranked officials at Justice. With the court investigation, these other officials may now be implicated in the scandal — the very thing that many may have hoped to avoid by scuttling the prosecution.