A top federal prosecutor who led the botched prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens will be leaving the Department of Justice “for a job in the private sector,” the agency wrote in a court filing Monday.
William Welch II led the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section during its now widely criticized pursuit of corruption charges against the late Alaska senator, a case that ultimately collapsed in 2009 and renewed national debate over the extent to which prosecutors are not playing fair with defense attorneys.
It was a low point in the section’s history of handling some of the most sensitive and important cases and has led to hearings on Capitol Hill to discuss the debacle. A hearing before the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Thursday morning.
DOJ prosecutors filed paperwork Monday morning stating that Welch would withdraw as prosecutor in a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling, confirming an NPR report that first broke the news. Sterling is accused of leaking secrets to New York Times reporter James Risen, a case that could set important precedent on the issue of whether reporters enjoy a legal privilege that could help them protect their sources, NPR reports.
Welch, who has spent his entire 22-year career as a DOJ lawyer, cooperated with an investigation into the conduct of prosecutors in the Stevens case and did not oppose the release of a 525-page report (PDF) last month that criticized the department's handling of the Stevens case. In that report, a special prosecutor said he found evidence of willful concealment of information from defense lawyers on at least three occasions.
That evidence, special prosecutor Henry "Hank" Schuelke III said, would have aided Stevens' defense of public corruption charges in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Two Alaska-based assistant U.S. attorneys, the report said, concealed information that went to the credibility of the government's chief witness.
While the Justice Department hasn’t yet published its internal ethics investigation being conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility on the Stevens case, Welch’s attorneys say the OPR told him in August that he did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment in the Stevens case.
In the Schuelke report, Welch also said he felt he was eliminated from the chain of command because of the Criminal Division front office’s active management of the prosecution. Welch, the report said, “supervised the conduct of the prosecution only when discrete matters were brought to his attention after controversies arose.”
The report credited Welch, saying that on the occasions when a discovery issue arose, “he directed that disclosure be made.”
It's not yet clear where Welch will land. Neither Welch nor his attorneys, William Taylor III of Zuckerman Spaeder and Mark Lynch of Covington & Burling, could immediately be reached for comment.
Staff writer Mike Scarcella contributed to this report.