WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday asked a court 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 Alaska state lawmakers were handled.
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.
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 entirely.
"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 ½ years in prison. Kott was also convicted in 2007 and sentenced to six years in prison. Both are Republicans, as is Stevens.
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.
Kohring's attorney, John Henry Browne, said he had sent Holder a letter about a month ago asking him to look into the case.
Browne predicted the charges would be dismissed.