“In the many cases I have been privileged to work on in my career, I have never seen political influence play any role in prosecutorial decision making. With one exception: United States v. Roger Stone.”
Senior members of the Justice Department ignored their ethical responsibility to be apolitical and interfered with an investigation to seek a lighter prison sentence for President Trump’s friend and ally Roger Stone, according to a former prosecutor on the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky is expected to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, where he plans to highlight the beneficial treatment Stone received due to pressure from the “highest levels of the Department of Justice.” Zelinsky was in charge of prosecuting Stone until he withdrew from the case in February when DOJ leaders undercut his team’s recommendation that Stone receive seven to nine years in prison—a sentence that was in line with standard guidelines.
Stone was convicted on seven felonies after he tried to interfere with a congressional investigation that threatened President Trump.
“What I heard—repeatedly—was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president,” Zelinsky wrote in his opening statement submitted on Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee.
Zelinsky will testify that a supervisor told him there were “political reasons” to reduce prosecutors’ initial sentencing recommendations, and that the supervisor agreed that doing so “was unethical and wrong.” Zelinsky said he and his fellow prosecutors expressed concerns in writing and in conversation, but were ignored.
He did not specify which supervisor he was referring to, but Attorney General William Barr ordered the intervention just days after he pushed the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, out of her role and replaced her with a close aide from his own office, Timothy Shea.
Zelinsky wrote that Shea came under immense pressure from the “highest levels of the Department of Justice” to cut Stone a break, reduce sentencing guidelines for political reasons, and “to water down and in some cases outright distort the events that transpired in his trial and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction.”
According to his statement, Zelinsky plans to say that he was told that Shea gave into the pressure because he was “afraid of the president.” Zelinsky also wrote that he was told that the case was “not the hill worth dying on” and that his job was at risk if they did not fall in line.
“Such pressure resulted in the virtually unprecedented decision to override the original sentencing recommendation,” Zelinsky wrote. The new, more lenient sentencing memorandum is what drove him and three other colleagues to withdraw from the case. Stone was ultimately sentenced in February to 40 months in prison.
In his statement, Zelinsky emphasized how rare it was for such political cronyism to factor into DOJ investigations.
“What I heard—repeatedly—was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president.”
“The first thing every [Assistant U.S. Attorney] learns is that we have an ethical and legal obligation to treat every defendant equally and fairly. No one is entitled to more or less because of who they are, who they know, or what they believe. In the United States of America, we do not prosecute people because of their politics. And we don’t cut them a break because of their politics either,” Zelinsky wrote. “In the many cases I have been privileged to work on in my career, I have never seen political influence play any role in prosecutorial decision making. With one exception: United States v. Roger Stone.”
The Department of Justice is supposed to be apolitical and refrain from being influenced by the president’s own political agenda. Under the current administration, however, those norms have been obliterated. Under Attorney General Barr, Trump has been accused of harnessing the power of the DOJ for his own political gain, throwing into question the credibility of the nation’s premier federal law enforcement agency in the process.
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That credibility will only be hurt further on Wednesday, when John W. Elias, a senior official in the DOJ’s antitrust division, will testify alongside Zelinsky. Elias plans to tell the committee that the action in the Stone case represents a trend of politically motivated investigations in Barr’s DOJ.
According to Elias’s written opening statement, which was obtained by the New York Times, the department inappropriately used its antitrust power to investigate 10 proposed mergers and acquisitions in the cannabis industry simply because Barr “did not like the nature of their underlying business.”
Elias said the reviews sucked up an enormous amount of time and resources from the antitrust division and ultimately led to the collapse of at least one merger, even though there was no justification for using antitrust powers to harass the firms.
Staff in the division complained about the investigations, Elias said, but their concerns went nowhere. The head of the division, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, acknowledged during a September 2019 all-staff meeting “that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices in the D.O.J. headquarters building.”
“Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” Elias added.
He also noted that the division was forced to conduct a review of an August 2019 deal between four major car makers and the state of California in which manufacturers would voluntarily continue to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions on new cars, despite the Trump administration’s rollback of federal standards. The investigation, Elias noted, was driven by political considerations.
“On August 20, 2019 the New York Times reported that President Trump was ‘enraged’ by the deal and wanted to retaliate,” Elias wrote. “The next day, August 21, the President tweeted about it.”
“The day after the tweets, antitrust division political leadership instructed staff to initiate an investigation that day,” Elias said. The investigation should have been closed in November, Elias added, but the division was forced to continue the inquiry until February, due to pressure from “the political leadership.”
Wednesday’s hearing will come just days after Barr pushed out Geoffrey S. Berman, the federal prosecutor in Manhattan who has led several investigations into Trump’s associates. Democrats have vowed to subpoena Barr, though he has suggested he will not comply with such an effort. Zelinsky and Elias’ revelations prompted Democrats and legal analysts to call for Barr’s resignation, while others called it “maybe the most significant evidence of corruption at the Justice Department since Watergate.”