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April 9, 2009 -- Wall Street Journal (US)

Justice Department Unit Is Again the Focus of Scrutiny

By Evan Perez

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WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's public-integrity section, now the subject of a court-ordered criminal probe into its pursuit of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, not too long ago was scrutinized for being overly cautious.

William Welch, the head of the unit, was appointed two years ago to help boost the section, which handles government corruption cases. He is an aggressive prosecutor who was catapulted to department headquarters in Washington after winning plaudits on local corruption cases as a federal prosecutor in Springfield, Mass.

Prosecutors in the unit oversaw the investigation of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the early part of this decade. But by a few years ago, the flow of big cases had slowed. At the same time, the Justice Department was facing a scandal over alleged political meddling under former President George W. Bush's White House. Some suggested the department was slowing cases that might be embarrassing to Republicans.

Two years later, the portrayal emerging from the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who on Tuesday dismissed the conviction of Mr. Stevens, is of prosecutorial tactics so aggressive that they denied a fair trial to the longest-serving Republican senator.

Todd Foster, a former federal prosecutor in Tampa and Houston and a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, questions whether the case would have been re-examined as closely if it hadn't involved a U.S. senator. "My question is what happens to the rest of us?" he asked. "What happens when the person doesn't have the resources Sen. Stevens had? What happens to those cases that don't reach the attorney general?"

In the Stevens case, the judge railed against government lawyers for repeatedly withholding evidence from defense attorneys. The latest instance came to light last week when Attorney General Eric Holder decided he wanted to drop the case. Tuesday, the judge appointed a special prosecutor to investigate and bring possible criminal-contempt of court charges against six federal prosecutors, including Mr. Welch and his deputy, Brenda Morris, who led the Stevens prosecution.

Ms. Morris declined to comment. Mr. Welch didn't respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Holder on Wednesday replaced the head of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, whose review of the Stevens prosecution also drew fire from Judge Sullivan.

A federal jury convicted Mr. Stevens on seven counts of failing to disclose certain free home renovations and other gifts from friends. His lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, cited the prosecutorial misconduct to portray his client Tuesday as an innocent man railroaded by the Justice Department.

Some department officials said the missteps had drawn focus away from the facts of the case: that Mr. Stevens accepted gifts from an oil company with business before Senate committees on which he sat.

The number of lawyers in the public-integrity section hovers between 20 and 30. Many cases handled in the section involve law-enforcement corruption and never gain public attention. In recent years, the section has brought cases against members of Congress for accepting bribes as well as military officers involved in bribery in Iraq-reconstruction contracts. Between 2001 and 2007, the section brought public-corruption charges against 416 people, winning 371 convictions.

Former and current officials say the division, by the nature of its work, is one of the most precarious places in the Justice Department. The officials describe Mr. Welch and Ms. Morris as longtime dedicated career lawyers.

Though some critics have raised possible political motives on the part of the prosecutors, officials of both Republican and Democratic affiliation who know them dismiss the likelihood of that. The Stevens case was approved by senior political appointees at the department, under the Bush administration at the time.

Laura Sweeney, a department spokeswoman, said: "Every day, prosecutors go into courtrooms around the country to hold our public officials accountable, regardless of political party.

The case was investigated for more than four years. Officials at headquarters debated whether the case should be brought by prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. Alaska prosecutors pushed for the chance to handle the case and department officials relented, but picked Ms. Morris to lead the trial team, a decision that caused some infighting, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Ms. Morris inherited many of the problems in the case, according to people familiar with the matter. But as head of the trial team, much of the blame for missteps will likely fall on her. Georgetown University, where Ms. Morris has periodically taught a summer course, says she has withdrawn from plans to teach there this summer.

Gary Fields contributed to this article.

Write to Evan Perez at

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