WASHINGTON — Pumping his fist in triumph, former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens swapped places with his prosecutors Tuesday, his corruption conviction dismissed and his accusers suddenly facing criminal investigation themselves.
It was a stunning turnaround for one of the legendary fighters in Senate history, a man known for a temper that matched his Incredible Hulk neckties. Run out of office following the conviction last October, Stevens gave what amounted to a victory speech as a judge wiped away the verdict.
The prosecutors were not in court. Kicked off the case following repeated accusations of withholding evidence, they're now the subject of a criminal contempt probe.
"In nearly 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said before taking the extraordinary step of appointing a prosecutor to investigate the prosecution.
The unraveling of the case overshadowed the facts of a trial in which Stevens was shown to have accepted thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts.
The case cost Stevens, 85, a Senate seat he had held for 40 years. He narrowly lost to Democrat Mark Begich after the verdict.
Now, the case could prove career-ending for prosecutors in the Justice Department's public corruption unit.
"Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system, was unwavering," Stevens told the court Tuesday, his first public comments since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would drop the case. "But what some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed."
Sullivan appointed Washington attorney Henry Schuelke to investigate possible contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department. Schuelke is a former prosecutor and veteran defense attorney who oversaw a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into influence-peddling allegations against former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in 1989.
Sullivan said the misconduct was too serious to be left to an internal probe by the Justice Department, which he said dragged its feet. He criticized former Attorney General Michael Mukasey for not responding to complaints: "Shocking, but not surprising," Sullivan said.
He worried aloud about how often prosecutors withhold evidence, from Guantanamo Bay terrorism cases to public corruption trials.
The judge's references to Mukasey and Gitmo pointed to the central irony in the botched prosecution of Stevens: The longest-serving Senate Republican had become an unlikely victim of the long reach of George W. Bush's Justice Department.
The decision to open a criminal case raises the question of whether the prosecutors, who include top officials in the department's public corruption unit, can remain on the job. The investigation carries the threat of prison time, fines and disbarment.
It also threatens to derail the investigation into other public officials, including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has been under scrutiny by the prosecutors now being investigated.
Subjects of the criminal probe are lead prosecutor Brenda Morris, the department's No. 2 corruption official; public integrity prosecutors; Alaska federal prosecutors; and William Welch, who did not participate in the trial but who supervises the integrity unit.
For now, Holder is standing behind Morris and Welch. "Unless there's some basis for me to decide if they have something wrong -— they'll remain in place," Holder told CBS anchor Katie Couric.
After Stevens' guilty verdict, an FBI whistleblower accused the team of misconduct and Sullivan held prosecutors in contempt for ignoring a court order.
The prosecution team was replaced and, last week, the new team acknowledged that key evidence had been withheld. That included notes from an interview with the government's star witness, contractor Bill Allen.
On the witness stand, Allen said a mutual friend told him not to expect payment for Stevens' home renovations. It was damaging testimony.
But in the previously undisclosed interview by prosecutors, Allen had no recollection of such a discussion. And he valued the renovation work at far less than what prosecutors alleged at trial.
"I was sick in my stomach," Stevens' attorney Brendan Sullivan said, recalling seeing the new evidence for the first time.
"How could they take on a very decent man, Ted Stevens, who happened to be a United States senator, and do this?"
Dismissing the case because prosecutors were bad is not the same thing as saying Stevens is good. Some of the most damning accusations — his taking of furniture, a puppy, a stained-glass window, a sculpture and a massage lounger — were largely unrelated to the prosecutorial misdeeds.
In the end, a form of rough justice triumphed. It ended with a political, rather than a legal, punishment: Stevens keeps a clean criminal record, but loses his Senate seat.
The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this report.