Jewish World Review
April 6, 2009
/ 12 Nissan 5769
Justice terribly delayed: The sad case of Ted Stevens
"Which office do I go to get my reputation back?" Ray Donovan, secretary of labor in the Reagan administration, on being acquitted after he resigned from office and endured a nine-month trial on larceny and fraud charges.
Ted Stevens used to be an institution in Alaska, almost a feature of the natural landscape. Like the Klondike. The longest-serving Republican member of the U.S. Senate, he was that state's version of West Virginia's Robert Byrd or South Carolina's Ol' Strom the powerful pol from whom all pork flowed.
Then came the fall from grace. Senator Stevens was tried and convicted of what boiled down to filing an erroneous financial disclosure form. The verdict came in just a week before Election Day last November, and, doubtless because of it, he lost his seat in the Senate though even then the vote was close.
The methods used to convict him were more than dubious. The presiding judge called them "outrageous," and at one point he found the U.S. Justice Department in contempt.
At one point, on hearing about an FBI interview that the prosecutors had kept from the defense, His Honor Emmet G. Sullivan looked the lawyers from the Justice Department in the eye and asked the obvious question: "How does the court have confidence that the Public Integrity Section (of the Justice Department) has public integrity?" As it turned out, it didn't. The department had to replace the entire prosecutorial team in Ted Stevens' case before finally winning its case.
Last week it was revealed that the prosecutors had hidden another key piece of evidence from the defense. That settled the matter: The Justice Department itself asked the judge to throw out Ted Stevens' conviction and dismiss all charges against him. The new attorney general, Eric Holder, made that call and raised his stock with doubters like me considerably.
Ted Stevens' response? It was a model of faith and restraint: "I always knew that the day would come when the cloud surrounding me would be removed. That day has finally come. It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair. It was my great honor to serve the state of Alaska in the United States Senate for 40 years."
One of his lawyers was more explicit: "The jury verdict here was obtained unlawfully. The government violated the Constitution of the United States, federal criminal rules, and applicable case law in order to obtain this unlawful verdict. The misconduct of the prosecutors was stunning to me. Many prosecutors were involved and least one FBI agent. Not only did the government fail to provide evidence to the defense that the law required them to provide, but they created false testimony that they gave us and they actually presented false testimony in the courtroom."
The result of these tactics? The prosecution succeeded in framing a war hero (Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal), U.S. senator, and innocent man for a time. Unfortunately, it was a time just before he was up for re-election. And his transient conviction was bound to have been the decisive factor in his electoral defeat.
Ted Stevens may have been cleared last week, but it was too late for real justice in his case. His conviction may be overturned, but there is no making up the wrong that was done him, or to recompense him for all he has lost not just an election but his good name, not to mention the legal fees it took to clear it. His treatment gives new, vivid meaning to that tired legal phrase about pain-and-suffering.
Life, as you may have noticed, Gentle Reader, and as a president of the United States named John F. Kennedy once observed, is unfair. Just as Ted Stevens, the beneficent political boss, did a lot of people favors, he accepted favors, too. But they were favors, not bribes. At worst, he was guilty of bad judgment, but that's no crime. Not yet.
The unfairness of it all is bound to rankle the fair-minded. To quote the other Republican senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, on what befell her colleague in his old age: "I am deeply disturbed that the government can ruin a man's career and then say, 'Never mind.' There is nothing that will ever compensate for the loss of his reputation or leadership...."
The other senator from Alaska commented, too. I can't recall reading a more graceless statement than the one issued by Mark Begich, Democrat and chief political beneficiary of Ted Stevens' conviction last year: "I always said I didn't think Senator Stevens should serve time in jail, and hopefully this decision (to drop the case against him) ensures that is the case."
The relevant question, of course, isn't whether Ted Stevens should go to jail but whether an innocent man should have been convicted at all. Sen. Begich sidestepped that question and said only: "It's time for Sen. Stevens, his family and Alaskans to move on and put this behind us." In short, never mind.
No, thank you, senator. Some of us do mind, and we will not be still in the face of so gross an injustice.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
Paul Greenberg Archives
© 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.