Justice Department Admits New Mistakes in Evidence Handling

June 5, 2009 - 7:46 AM
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Washington (AP) - Attorney General Eric Holder asked a court Thursday to release two imprisoned former Alaska state lawmakers after the Justice Department found prosecutors improperly handled evidence in their trials on corruption charges.
 
The move is the second embarrassing retreat for Justice Department prosecutors since the conviction of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was tossed out of court in April.
 
That prompted an internal inquiry into the government lawyers who handled the Stevens case, and officials said Thursday there also would be an investigation of how the cases of the two Alaska state lawmakers were handled. Most of the prosecution team is the same for all three cases.
 
Now, Holder is asking a federal appeals court to send the cases of former Alaska House Speaker Peter Kott and former state Rep. Victor Kohring back to the trial judge. The attorney general made the request after finding prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence to the defense.
 
Similar errors sank the case against Stevens, at the time the Senate's longest-serving Republican.
 
In announcing the move Thursday, the Justice Department said it also was asking the appeals court to release the two men on their own recognizance.
 
The department is not dropping the charges against Kott and Kohring but is seeking to bring the case back to the trial judge, where defense lawyers will almost certainly seek to have the cases thrown out.
 
"After a careful review of these cases, I have determined that it appears that the department did not provide information that should have been disclosed to the defense," Holder said in a statement. "When we make mistakes, it is our duty to admit and correct those mistakes."
 
Kohring was convicted in November 2007 of bribery and extortion-related charges and sentenced in 2008 to 3 1/2 years in prison. Kott was also convicted in 2007 and sentenced to six years in prison. Like Stevens, both are Republicans.
 
Holder's announcement did not specify what evidence authorities failed to turn over to defense lawyers, but the trials of all three men -- Kott, Kohring and Stevens -- centered around testimony from the same key witness, Bill Allen, the founder of VECO Corp., a major Alaska company that performed maintenance, design and construction contracts for petroleum producers.
 
Kott and Kohring were tried in Alaska; Stevens was tried in Washington, D.C. Yet they shared many of the same prosecutors, who are now under scrutiny for their conduct in three separate trials at opposite ends of the continent.
 
Edward Sullivan, James Goeke, Nicholas Marsh and Joseph Bottini worked on all three cases.
 
Prosecutor Brenda Morris joined the team for the Stevens trial, and their work was supervised by William Welch.
 
Lawyers for the prosecutors did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
 
Kohring's attorney, John Henry Browne, said he had sent Holder a letter about a month ago asking him to look into the case.
 
"I attached two documents to that letter to Eric Holder that I had received from Sen. Stevens' attorney, which were documents that were not given to me during Mr. Kohring's trial. And I suspect there are a lot more," Browne told The Associated Press.
 
Browne predicted the charges would be dismissed.
 
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "If we have a hearing, the hearing's going to be on all kinds of things, not just on the documents."
 
A message left with Kott's attorney was not immediately returned.
 
Thursday's actions grow out of a review prompted by the problems with the Stevens case.
 
When Stevens' conviction was tossed out, Holder ordered a more extensive review of possible prosecutorial missteps, particularly among the lawyers handling public corruption cases. Separately, a judge has ordered a second investigation into the conduct of many of the lawyers involved.
 
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Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.