Two federal prosecutors “engaged in reckless professional misconduct” during the failed public corruption case against deceased Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and should be suspended without pay, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Joseph Bottini, an assistant U.S. attorney in Alaska, and James Goeke, a federal prosecutor in Washington state, should be suspended for 40 and 15 days respectively, according to a Justice Department letter sent to lawmakers today with a report by its internal ethics watchdog. The Justice Department told the lawyers of the planned disciplinary action yesterday and they have an opportunity to appeal.
The department’s report, by its Office of Professional Responsibility, is the latest disclosure in a three-year investigation that began in April 2009 when the Justice Department said prosecutors withheld evidence that could have helped Stevens’s defense.
“The punishment is a laughable and pathetic attempt to fool the public,” Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly LLP, who represented Stevens, said in an interview. “The Justice Department has demonstrated to all of us conclusively that they cannot discipline their own.”
Justice Department employees “work hard to keep our country and communities safe and to ensure that defendants are brought to justice honorably and ethically,” Ronald Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, said in the letter to lawmakers. “Nonetheless, when there is even a single lapse, we must, and we do, take it seriously.”
At the department’s request, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed the case against Stevens, a Republican, who was convicted for omitting $250,000 worth of gifts, including renovations to a house in Alaska, from his financial disclosure reports.
Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010 at age 86, two years after losing his re-election campaign.
Bottini disregarded his obligation to disclose information that may have been helpful to the defense, including inconsistencies in statements made by the government’s key witness, according to the report. Notes from an interview with the witness, which the prosecution team denied remembering, were found in a closet in the FBI’s Anchorage office.
Both Bottini and Goeke also should have disclosed information from another witness who said Stevens wanted to pay for all of the home renovations, according to the report.
The violations weren’t intentional, according to the report.
The two prosecutors “engaged in professional misconduct by acting in reckless disregard of their disclosure obligations,” according to the report.
Bottini “undoubtedly made mistakes, mistakes he greatly regrets,” said his Washington lawyer, Kenneth Wainstein, in a Jan. 25 letter to the Justice Department commenting on a draft version of the report. “In no way did Mr. Bottini act with reckless disregard or poor judgment.”
The record doesn’t show that Goeke acted in “reckless disregard or committed any other misconduct,” said Bonnie Brownell, his Washington attorney, in a Jan. 23 letter to Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Brenda Morris, a Justice Department lawyer who led the trial team, “exercised poor judgment” by failing to supervise the process by which the government reviewed documents to see if any needed to be disclosed to Stevens. Chuck Rosenberg, an attorney for Morris in Washington, declined to comment.
Morris and two other attorneys in the Public Integrity Section who were on the prosecution team didn’t commit professional misconduct, according to the report.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a June 6 hearing on the report which Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the panel, released on his website.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said in a statment that the report falls short.
“Rather than speak to the possibility of a larger, more systemic problem inside the Justice Department, the Office of Professional Responsibility wants us to believe that this was the inadvertent errors of two lone actors,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Seth Stern in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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