WASHINGTON — An angry federal judge held Justice Department attorneys in contempt Friday for failing to deliver documents to former Sen. Ted Stevens' legal team, a rare punishment for prosecutors in a case where corruption allegations have spread to the authorities who investigated him.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said it was "outrageous" that government attorneys would ignore his Jan. 30 deadline for turning over documents.
Last month, Sullivan ordered the Justice Department to provide the agency's internal communications regarding a whistle-blower complaint brought by an FBI agent involved in the investigation into the former Alaska senator. The agent, Chad Joy, objected to Justice Department tactics during the trial, including failure to turn over evidence and an "inappropriate relationship" between the lead agent on the case and the prosecution's star witness.
Stevens was convicted last October of lying on Senate disclosure documents about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations from an Alaska businessman. In November, Stevens lost his bid for re-election to the Senate seat he had held since 1968.
The contempt citation doesn't immediately change anything for Stevens, who remains a convicted felon and is awaiting sentencing. It could help his appeal, however, since it bolsters his lawyers' argument that prosecutors repeatedly withheld evidence from them during the trial.
Sullivan said after the government turns over the documents he's demanded, he will hold further hearings to hear arguments about whether the case was so damaged that Stevens deserves to have his conviction thrown out and a new trial take place.
During Friday's hearing, Sullivan repeatedly asked three Justice Department attorneys sitting at the prosecution's table whether they had some reason not to turn over the documents he asked for. They finally acknowledged they did not, and Sullivan exploded in anger.
"That was a court order," he bellowed. "That wasn't a request. I didn't ask for them out of the kindness of your hearts. ... Isn't the Department of Justice taking court orders seriously these days?"
He said he didn't want to get "sidetracked" by deciding a sanction immediately and would deal with their punishment later.
"That's outrageous for the Department of Justice _ the largest law firm on the planet," Sullivan said. "That is not acceptable in this court."
Sullivan held all three lawyers in contempt. Two are senior Justice Department attorneys; William Welch is chief of the public integrity section and his principal deputy is Brenda Morris. The third was a new member to the prosecution team, trial attorney Kevin Driscoll.
As Sullivan called them out individually and wrote down their names, he demanded to know who else on their team was involved in withholding the information. Patty Merkamp Stemler, chief of the Justice Department's appellate section, was sitting in the back of the courtroom but stood up and gave her name.
Sullivan ordered the government lawyers to give Stevens' attorneys the material by the end of the day, and Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told the AP a few hours later that the prosecutors had done so. "We will continue to litigate in court matters related to the jury's conviction of Senator Stevens," she said.
Judges rarely hold prosecutors in contempt. The most notable recent case occurred in September 2007, when a North Carolina judge jailed prosecutor Mike Nifong for one day on a contempt charge for lying during the rape case against Duke lacrosse players.
But sanctioning federal prosecutors is even more unusual. A Washington bankruptcy judge did so in 1987, ruling that the Justice Department unlawfully tried to put a financially troubled computer firm out of business. In 1995, a federal judge in Texas held a prosecutor in contempt for refusing to provide him information that had been sealed by another judge.
In his complaint turned over to the court in December, Joy accused prosecutors of mishandling evidence, covering up information and trying to keep a subpoenaed witness from testifying.
He also said the lead FBI agent in charge of the investigation, Mary Beth Kepner, had an inappropriate relationship with witness Bill Allen, the Alaska millionaire at the center of the investigation. Joy said he once saw Kepner entering Allen's hotel room alone. Joy also said Kepner told him she wore a skirt during her appearance at the Stevens trial as a "surprise/present" for Allen.
Joy accused Kepner of developing close personal relationships with other witnesses _ inviting them to dine at her home, revealing details of FBI investigations and accepting gifts from them, including a job for her husband as a security guard at the Port of Anchorage, Alaska.
The Justice Department attorneys have given conflicting information about whether Joy has been given whistle-blower status to protect him from retaliation, which is why Sullivan demanded internal communications on the matter.