The number of cases and investigations by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section slid in 2009, as the anti-corruption unit dealt with aftershocks from the bungled prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
According to an annual report compiled by the department for Congress, the section charged 36 people with corruption and related offenses last year, a 30 percent decrease from 2008, when the section charged 51 people — including Stevens, former Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi and Samuel Kent, a sitting federal district judge in Texas. (The section also charged 51 people in 2007, the first year the department included in the report a chart of the section’s activity apart from that of the U.S. Attorneys’ offices.)
The investigations pipeline also appeared to be narrower. At the end of 2008, the section recorded 174 pending investigations, including 116 probes involving allegations of corruption in the federal legislative and executive branches. During that same period, the section closed 96 investigations without criminal charges.
As of December 2009, the section had 116 investigations pending, including 59 related to allegations of corruption in the federal legislative and executive branches. The department closed 97 investigations in 2009 without bringing criminal charges.
The numbers represent the first – albeit imperfect — measure of the section’s ability to bounce back after the Stevens case imploded in late 2008. Last fall, the section lost its chief and his top deputy, both of whom are under investigation for their roles in the case, which was thrown out in April 2009 at the request of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Justice Department officials declined to elaborate on the report. “The Public Integrity Section has a skilled team of dedicated and experienced public corruption prosecutors who are actively and aggressively investigating and prosecuting public corruption,” said spokeswoman Alisa Finelli. “Public Integrity Section prosecutors bring cases based on the facts and circumstances of each case and in accordance with the law.”
The vast majority of public corruption cases are handled by the U.S. Attorney offices. Combined, the 94 offices and the section brought public corruption charges against 1,082 people in 2009 — the fewest since 2001 — and won convictions against 1,061 people — less than in 2008 but more than in 2007.
The Public Integrity Section kept pace in the number of federal officials charged (21 in 2009 compared with 20 in 2008), but it registered drop-offs in state and local officials charged (two compared with seven), as well as private citizens involved in public corruption offenses (13 compared with 24).
Convictions in cases brought by the section remained nearly level — at 42 in 2009 versus 38 in 2008 — while the number of officials awaiting trial dipped from 36 in 2008 to 20 in 2009.
The section’s roughly 30 lawyers include experts in extortion, bribery, election crimes and criminal conflicts of interest. In May, Jack Smith, a former federal prosecutor in New York, replaced Raymond Hulser as chief. Hulser had been running the section in an acting capacity since October 2009, when William Welch II stepped down. Welch is now a trial lawyer in the Criminal Division; Hulser is Smith’s top deputy.
The shakeup came amid internal and court-ordered investigations of Welch, his former deputy, Brenda Morris, and four line prosecutors who worked on the Stevens case. Investigators are trying to determine whether prosecutors intentionally concealed exculpatory information from Stevens and his defense team, or whether they did so mistakenly.
While the Stevens case was arguably the highest-profile prosecution of 2008, the section brought several other headline-grabbing cases that year. Renzi was charged with corruption and money laundering, and Kent, the federal judge in Texas, was charged with sexually abusing a former employee. (The Renzi case is ongoing; Kent was sentenced in May 2009 to 33 months in prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.)
Last year, the section recorded more convictions related to the Jack Abramoff investigation and prosecuted nine former State Department employees for illegally accessing confidential passport files. The section also secured steep prison sentences — 17 years in one instance — against military and civilian contractors convicted of bribery, money laundering and related offenses.
On Tuesday, the department announced the indictment of Puerto Rican state Sen. Hector Martinez Maldonado and Juan Bravo Fernandez, the former president of a large private security firm in the commonwealth. The lawmaker is accused of accepting bribes from Fernandez in return for securing passage of legislation beneficial to his former firm.
The full 2009 report is embedded below.