Prosecutor Who Ran Ethics Unit Leaves Justice Department

The New York Times on April 17, 2012 released the following:

“By CHARLIE SAVAGE

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Monday announced the departure of a high-profile prosecutor who ran its ethics unit during the botched case against Senator Ted Stevens and has since played a prominent role in the Obama administration’s efforts to prosecute officials for leaking information to the press.

The departure of the prosecutor, William M. Welch II, was disclosed in a motion before a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. The department informed the court that he would no longer represent the government in the case against Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency official who is accused of leaking information to James Risen, an author and a reporter for The New York Times.

“Mr. Welch is leaving the Department of Justice for a job in the private sector,” the motion said, but it did not give details.

Another department official confirmed that Mr. Welch had retired, saying that his last day was Friday, and that he was taking a job in the Boston area. A law firm that represented him during the fallout from the Stevens case also confirmed that he had left the Justice Department. NPR first reported Mr. Welch’s departure on Monday.

A hard-charging prosecutor, Mr. Welch got his start in 1989 in the Justice Department’s tax division and later worked as an assistant United States attorney in Nevada and in Massachusetts. In August 2007, he was made acting deputy chief of the public integrity section at Justice Department headquarters, and the following March became its chief.

In that position, he oversaw the trial team that won a conviction against Mr. Stevens in October 2008 for failing to report gifts from an oil-services firm. But the conviction was withdrawn and the case collapsed after it emerged that prosecutors had failed to turn over information to the defense that could have helped Mr. Stevens, an Alaskan Republican who lost re-election in November 2008 and later died in a plane crash.

The federal judge overseeing the case held Mr. Welch and other prosecutors involved in the case in contempt of court, and the judge and the Justice Department opened investigations. Last month, however, the judge made public the results of his investigation, and the findings largely exonerated Mr. Welch.

Specifically, the report found that Mr. Welch had been cut out of direct supervision of the trial team because his superiors in the criminal division had taken a strong interest in the case and so he had focused on other cases. It also found that “to his credit, on each occasion” when disclosure issues were brought to Mr. Welch for a decision, he directed prosecutors to provide the information to the defense.

Back in 2009, Mr. Welch was replaced as head of the public integrity section. In October of that year, he returned to the United States attorney’s office in Massachusetts but continued to work for the criminal division, whose new head, Lanny A. Breuer, asked him to take up several largely dormant leak investigations left over from the Bush administration years.

One of those cases was against Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official whom Mr. Welch eventually prosecuted in connection with leaks to The Baltimore Sun about enormous waste and mismanagement within the agency.

Mr. Welch initially sought conviction on charges that could have put Mr. Drake in prison for 35 years, winning an indictment in April 2010. But the case against Mr. Drake largely collapsed amid a dispute over what classified evidence prosecutors could use.

Mr. Drake pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge and received a year of probation, while all the major charges were dropped and he avoided prison time. When the judge overseeing the case accepted the deal in July, he called the government’s handling of the case — putting Mr. Drake through “four years of hell” and devastating him financially, only to drop the major charges on the eve of trial — “unconscionable.”

Mr. Welch also helped revive an investigation against Mr. Sterling, who is accused of providing information about what was portrayed in Mr. Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War,” as a botched effort to sabotage Iranian nuclear research in 2000. Mr. Sterling was indicted in December 2010.

That case, too, is in trouble. Mr. Welch had been seeking to compel Mr. Risen to testify against Mr. Sterling, but Mr. Risen’s lawyers invoked the First Amendment and said he would not testify about any confidential sources. A district court judge ruled in favor of Mr. Risen. In appealing that ruling, prosecutors told the appeals court that if the ruling stands, it “effectively terminated the prosecution” of Mr. Sterling.”

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