In an unexpected move, the Department of Justice decided this week to drop the charges against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. This will effectively void Stevens’s conviction on seven charges related to lying about gifts on financial disclosure forms.
An internal review reportedly revealed that problems of prosecutorial misconduct looked to be even more wide-reaching than previously reported - and that’s saying a lot considering how much controversy the prosecutors created last fall: They repeatedly failed to provide the defense team all the evidence they were using, and they presented evidence in court that they knew was false. Now, The New York Times reports that those involved in the case could be facing ethics charges of their own.
In October, I wrote that the prosecution’s actions should make us uncomfortable with the prospect of a guilty verdict. Whatever you think of Stevens’s culpability, this is a good move by the Department of Justice. (If only they were as willing to crack down on prosecutorial misconduct in lower-profile cases.)
The DoJ’s decision does not clear Stevens of suspicion. Their move was not due to the merits of the case but to procedural issues. The charges that the Senator was facing are still as damning, and the defense he offered during his trial still has as many holes. It is thus somewhat jarring to see Republican Senators rush to embrace their former colleague.
What is understandable, however, is the GOP’s frustration at having lost a Senate seat over a conviction that would be overturned a few months later (by a Democratic Attorney General, no less). Those who followed the 2008 election will remember how closely we monitored this case, whose outcome looked likely to determine the fate of the Senate race opposing Stevens and Democrat Mark Begich. Summer polls had shown Begich with a wide lead, but the margin shrank as Election Day neared. The court’s late October decision looked like it would seal his fate, but even then the longtime Senator only lost by 4,000 votes - an extraordinary show of political muscle for a convicted felon.
“I always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed. That day has finally come,” Stevens said this week. “It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair.” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a similar point. “It literally cost us a seat,” he said. And thus comes the GOP’s new cause: Putting pressure on Begich to resign and trigger a special election. Sarah Palin herself has called for Begich’s resignation.
Such an arrangement would make little sense since Begich has no responsibility whatsoever in what unfolded in that courtroom last fall. If Senators started resigning every time questions were raised about their election, we would have special elections every few months. What about the GOP’s 2002 victories? Republicans were greatly helped by Iraq’s intrusion in the national debate; should Republican Senators who won tight victories (Coleman, Sununu) have resigned once it became clear that talk of weapons of mass destruction and of ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq proved misleading? After all, Republicans were far more responsible in unfairly skewing elections in 2002 than Democrats were of messing with Alaska’s process last year.
Rather than create trouble for Democrats, Stevens’s rehabilitation will have consequences on the Alaska GOP’s internal feuds.
The most amusing scenario Republican Rep. Don Young, a Stevens ally who said that the former Senator should challenge Sarah Palin in the gubernatorial primary in 2010. What a race that would be! And what a way for the state GOP’s civil war to continue after heated episodes in 2006 and 2008!
On the other side are old-school Republicans like Stevens and Young who have build their careers on bringing back money from Washington and who employ slightly less conservative rhetoric; unfortunately for them, they have also been plagued by allegations of corruption and of ethical misconduct. Senator Lisa Murkowski belongs to this latter camp; in fact, she is moderate enough that she is now one of the few GOP Senators who could save EFCA.
Let’s recap some of the recent episodes of this battle. In 2006, Palin defeated Lisa Murkowski’s father Frank in the GOP’s gubernatorial primary. In 2008, Young and Parnell faced off in a bruising primary; Palin and the Club for Growth helped Parnell, but the incumbent narrowly survived. Last fall, some of Palin’s harshest critics were Republican lawmakers from Alaska. (”She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?” declared then-state Senate President Lyda Green. “Look at what she’s done to this state. What would she do to the nation?”) And more recently, Palin’s decision to refuse a third of the stimulus money antagonized many in the state legislature.
Next year, Palin could choose to challenge Murkowski in the senatorial primary; Parnell recently suggested that he might seek a rematch against Young; and at least one prominent state Republican is now on the record suggesting that Stevens should challenge Palin. All these races might very well fizzle, but for now Alaska remains a state to follow.