Whistle-Blower Says DOJ Aimed to Give Trump Ally Roger Stone a Break
(Bloomberg) -- A federal prosecutor in the case against Roger Stone says improper political pressure was applied to reduce the Justice Department’s recommended sentence in the criminal case of the longtime adviser to President Donald Trump.
“What I heard -- repeatedly -- was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president,” Aaron Zelinsky said in prepared testimony for a hearing Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
“Such pressure resulted in the virtually unprecedented decision to override the original sentencing recommendation in his case and to file a new sentencing memorandum that included statements and assertions at odds with the record and contrary to Department of Justice policy,” according to Zelinsky, who joined other prosecutors in withdrawing from the case in February after Attorney General William Barr ordered a reduction in the time the department recommended Stone serve in prison.
Zelinsky says he was told that Timothy Shea, the acting U.S. attorney for Washington, “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break.”
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said Zelinsky and another Justice Department official, John Elias, are “whistle-blowers” who will testify under subpoena at Wednesday’s hearing.
Much of the testimony provided on Tuesday appears to be secondhand information based on conversations the prosecutors say they had with other Justice Department officials.
A department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said in a statement posted on Twitter that Zelinsky did not discuss the sentencing with the attorney general “or any other member of political leadership at the department.”
She added that his allegations were “based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best.)” She also reiterated Barr’s insistence that he did not discuss Stone’s sentencing with the president.
‘Bullying and Threatening’
Responding to Zelinsky’s prepared testimony, Stone said in a text message that the prosecutor’s “specialty is bullying and threatening witnesses and their lawyers.” He said that “based on this account, he has no actual proof of pressure from either Attorney General Barr or Mr. Shea and he declines to name those he said told him that he had to be more lenient in my sentence.”
“I’ve been in the business long enough to know hearsay,” Stone added in a telephone interview.
Stone has been sentenced to 40 months and is set to report to prison on June 30, but on Tuesday he asked a judge to extend his deadline by two months. He’s arguing that starting his sentence this month would put him at risk of infection and death during the coronavirus pandemic. The request, which is unopposed by the government, is based on Stone’s age -- he turns 68 in August -- and medical conditions.
“Those medical conditions make the consequences of his exposure to the Covid-19 virus in a prison facility life-threatening,” Stone’s lawyer, Seth Ginsberg, said in the filing in federal court in Washington. “The threat of exposure, given the current status of Covid-19 within BOP facilities and the lack of testing, is compelling.”
But U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson late Tuesday ordered the government to explain its reasons for not opposing Stone’s request. She gave the government a deadline of Thursday to file its submission, and also demanded that results of Covid-19 testing at the prison be included.
Elias, a trial attorney in the Antitrust Division, portrays a Justice Department improperly swayed by Trump’s temper and by Barr’s preoccupation with prosecuting marijuana cases.
Elias says in his prepared testimony that Trump was “enraged” that some major automakers were crafting a deal with California on air quality standards tougher than those the Environmental Protection Agency was preparing to adopt. Trump tweeted his objections.
“The day after the tweets, Antitrust Division political leadership instructed staff to initiate an investigation that day,” he says.
The department has said it had a legitimate legal basis to believe that the companies violated antitrust laws and that political interference played no role.
Elias says cannabis investigations accounted for five of eight active merger investigations “in the office that is responsible for the transportation, energy, and agriculture sectors of the American economy.”
He says Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who heads the Antitrust Division responded to concern about that emphasis at a staff meeting in September 2019 by saying “that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular on the fifth floor.” That’s where Barr has his office at Justice Department headquarters.
“Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” Elias intends to testify.
Brianna Herlihy, another department spokeswoman, said Elias “did not present any evidence in support of his allegations.” She added in a statement that “the Office of Professional Responsibility reviewed the marijuana merger investigations and found the division acted “reasonably and appropriately.”
Another witness to appear Wednesday, Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, says he sees Barr as working to help create an authoritarian presidency.
“Bill Barr regularly shrouds himself in the rhetoric and trappings of the rule of law, even as he desecrates and undermines the institutions that make it possible,” Ayer says in his prepared testimony.
Barr is an unabashed advocate of a strong presidency but has denied his decisions are shaped by political pressure.
Zelinsky says in his prepared testimony that the team of prosecutors handling Stone’s case drafted a sentencing recommendation “at the low end” of guidelines. He adds that they were pressed to reduce the proposal more through an inaccurate calculation.
“We were told by a supervisor that the U.S. attorney had political reasons for his instructions, which our supervisor agreed was unethical and wrong,” Zelinsky says, without naming the supervisor. “However, we were instructed that we should go along with the U.S. attorney’s instructions, because this case was ‘not the hill worth dying on’ and that we could ‘lose our jobs if we did not toe the line.”
But the prosecutors persisted and filed their recommendation on a Monday evening. By 2:48 a.m. the following morning, Zelinsky said, Trump tweeted that the recommendation was “horrible and very unfair.”
By evening, the Justice Department filed a new memorandum seeking a substantially lower sentence for Stone. Kupec, the Justice Department spokeswomen, said Barr had made his decision to reduce the recommended sentence before Trump tweeted.
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