Brendan Sullivan.
Brendan Sullivan. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ.)

Five years after prosecutorial misconduct spoiled the trial of the late Alaska senator Ted Stevens, his legal team won an award Thursday night as “constitutional champions” for exposing wrongdoing at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Constitution Project, a bipartisan reform group, honored Brendan Sullivan Jr., Robert Cary and other lawyers from Williams & Connolly for insisting that prosecutors in the Stevens corruption trial “fulfill their constitutional obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence.”

In accepting the honor, Sullivan said what happened in the Stevens case “can happen to anyone anywhere.” Federal prosecutors in the Stevens case violated their obligations under Brady v. Maryland “because they feared losing,” Sullivan said.

“My generation of lawyers has fought injustice to a tie,” Sullivan said, adding that prosecutorial misconduct persists and must be fought by the next generation.

Also honored Thursday were Henry Schuelke III and William Shields of Blank Rome, who were appointed by Stevens trial judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to investigate and report on what went wrong in the prosecution. Their 2012 report concluded that the Stevens trial was “permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence.”

Schuelke said the aftermath of the Stevens trial led to revisions in the U.S. attorney manual instructing prosecutors to “err on the side of disclosure,” but problems persist. Brady violations have led to the reversal of at least 15 high-visibility convictions since the Stevens case, according to Schuelke.

The “true defender of the Constitution” in the Stevens case, Schuelke said, was Sullivan, who criticized the Brady violations, dismissed Stevens’ conviction and ordered the probe. The judge was in the audience Thursday night.

The Justice Department suspended two assistant U.S. attorneys, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, for their role in the case, but an administrative law judge last year overturned the suspensions on procedural grounds. The case is pending in the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Another award last night went to Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, for challenging the Justice Department’s 2012 subpoenas and seizure of reporters’ phone records in a leak investigation.

The government action caused a “real chilling effect” that hampered reporting, Pruitt said. “We had sources dry up” because of their fear of government surveillance. The controversy led to improved Justice Department guidelines governing subpoenas aimed at journalists. “It’s nice to know it’s not a crime to commit journalism,” Pruitt said.

Constitution Project president Virginia Sloan said the awards exemplified the work of her organization, seeking improvements in government handling of issues that touch on constitutional concerns—reforms that win bipartisan support.

With task forces and reports on issues ranging from the treatment of detainees to the death penalty, Sloan said the project can be viewed as “a clearinghouse of unlikely allies.”

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.