Former federal prosecutors describe the Roger Stone sentencing reversal as unprecedented

WASHINGTON — Legal experts and former federal prosecutors say the Justice Department’s reversal of the sentencing recommendation for President Trump’s former campaign adviser is an extraordinary development that could have a long-term impact on public perception of federal law enforcement’s independence from political interference.

Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump, was convicted last November for lying to Congress, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. The Justice Department overruled the seven-to-nine-year sentencing recommendation prosecutors made in the case.

The controversy over Stone’s sentencing deepened this morning when President Trump took to Twitter to congratulate Attorney General William Barr for “taking control of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”

The case against Stone, a fixture in GOP politics, was a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. While the investigation looked at Stone’s role in the release of hacked emails, he was ultimately charged with lying to Congress and threatening a congressional witness.  

He was convicted in November on all charges.

The four federal prosecutors on the case all withdrew from it yesterday; one of them resigned from the Department of Justice after headquarters had recommended an unspecified term in prison. Today the House Judiciary Committee announced it wants Barr to testify next month about the decision in this case as well as the “removal of U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu, who oversaw the prosecutions of President Trump’s deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and President Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone.”

Trump yesterday withdrew Liu’s nomination for a senior post at the Treasury Department. 

48 PHOTOS
Roger Stone through the years
See Gallery
Roger Stone through the years
Political advisor Roger Stone poses for a portrait following an interview in New York City, U.S., February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 03: Attorney Roy Cohn (c.) with Roger Stone (l.) and Mark Fleischman (r.). (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
American Ronald Reagan and Roger Stone at the Chrysler Plant, Detroit, Michigan, September 20, 1980. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Roger Stone speaks to the media at Trump Tower on December 6, 2016 in New York City. Potential members of President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet have been meeting with him and his transition team over the last few weeks. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MARCH 21: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater are young political operatives who have set up lobbying firms. (Photo By Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - DECEMBER 09: Roger J. Stone Jr. discusses and signs copies of his book 'The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ' at Books and Books on December 9, 2013 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - DECEMBER 09: Roger J. Stone Jr. discusses and signs copies of his book 'The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ' at Books and Books on December 9, 2013 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Roger Stone, Ex-Donald Trump Advisor, talks with Jonathan Alter during an episode of Alter Family Politics on SiriusXM at Quicken Loans Arena on July 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18: Political operative Roger Stone attends rally on the first day of the Republican National Convention (RNC) on July 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in downtown Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The convention runs through July 21. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
HILTON HOTEL MIDTOWN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2016/07/16: Roger Stone attends Donald Trump introduction to Governor Mike Pence as running for vice president at Hilton hotel Midtown Manhattan. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2002: Portrait of Roger Stone (Photo by Pat Carroll/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
American Ronald Reagan and Roger Stone at the Chrysler Plant, Detroit, Michigan, September 20, 1980. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY - AUGUST 19: Roger Stone attends Roger Stone Exclusive Photo Session on August 19, 1987 at Alan Flusser Boutique in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - MAY 12: Portrait of Roger Stone (Photo by Pat Carroll/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JANUARY 27: Trump ally Roger Stone Whom Robert Mueller recently arrested in a pre dawn raid at this home by the head of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference, while he was in the house filming with Infowars reporter Owen Shroyer he just sent his second wife Nydia Bertran Stone out Shopping Credit: Hoo-Me.com / MediaPunch *** NO NY PAPERS*** /IPX
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2019, file photo, Roger Stone, left, with his wife Nydia Stone, leaves federal court in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to sentence Stone to serve between 7 and 9 years in prison after his conviction on witness tampering and obstruction charges. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
Roger Stone leaves federal court in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Stone, a longtime friend of President Donald Trump, has been found guilty at his trial in federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
ARLINGTON, VA - FEBRUARY 3: Roger Stone seen arriving at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia on his way to Boston on February 3, 2019. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX
PASADENA, CA - JULY 29: Roger Stone pictured during Weed Nation Panel Discussion at day 1 of Politicon The Unconventional Convention 2017 at The Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California on July 29, 2017. Credit: Faye Sadou/MediaPunch /IPX
In this Nov. 12, 2019 file photo, Roger Stone, a longtime Republican provocateur and former confidant of President Donald Trump, waits in line at the federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2019 file photo, Roger Stone, a longtime Republican provocateur and former confidant of President Donald Trump, waits in line at the federal court in Washington. A Justice Department official tells the AP that the agency is backing away from its sentencing recommendation of between seven to nine years in prison for Trump confidant Roger Stone. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Roger Stone, and his wife Nydia, arrive at Federal Court for his federal trial in Washington, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Al Drago)
Roger Stone, and his wife Nydia, arrive at Federal Court for his federal trial in Washington, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Al Drago)
Roger Stone departs the Federal Court with his daughter Adria, after the third day of his trial, in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Roger Stone waits with his wife Nydia in the lobby of the federal courthouse after the third day of his trial, in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Roger Stone arrives at Federal Court for his federal trial in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of President Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife, Nydia Stone, leaves federal court in Washington, Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
Roger Stone, an associate of President Donald Trump, leaves the U.S. District Court, after a court status conference on his seven charges: one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements, and one count of witness tampering, in Washington, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Stone has pleaded not guilty to the charges. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
This courtroom sketch shows former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone talking from the witness stand as prosecution attorney Jonathan Kravis, standing left, Stone's attorney Bruce Rogow, third from right, and Judge Amy Berman Jackson listen, during a court hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Berman Jackson issued a broad gag order forbidding Stone to discuss his criminal case with anyone and gave him a stinging reprimand over his posting of a photo of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)
Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone leaves the federal court in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, as his daughter Adria, Stone walks in front of him. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
This courtroom sketch shows former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone talking from the witness stand as Judge Amy Berman Jackson listens during a court hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Berman Jackson issued a broad gag order forbidding Stone to discuss his criminal case with anyone and gave him a stinging reprimand over his posting of a photo of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)
MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 4: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Trump ally Roger Stone (Born: August 27, 1952 age 66 years) seen in good sprits eating dinner. Roger Jason Stone Jr. is an American political consultant, lobbyist and strategist noted for his use of opposition research, usually for candidates of the Republican Party on February, 2019 in Miami, Florida ***NO NY NEWSPAPERS*** People: Roger Stone Credit: Hoo-me.com/MediaPunch /IPX
Roger Stone leaves the federal court Friday, Feb. 1, 2019 in Washington. Stone appeared for a status conference just three days after he pleaded not guilty to felony charges of witness tampering, obstruction and false statements. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, leaves federal court in Washington, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. Stone was back in court in the special counsel's Russia investigation as prosecutors say they have recovered "voluminous and complex" potential evidence in the case, including financial records, emails and computer hard drives. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Roger Stone, longtime friend and confidant of President Donald Trump, waits to speak to members of the media in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Stone is accused of lying to lawmakers, engaging in witness tampering and obstructing a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump's campaign. He pleaded not guilty this week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Roger Stone, longtime friend and confidant of President Donald Trump, waits to speak to members of the media at at a hotel in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Stone is accused of lying to lawmakers, engaging in witness tampering and obstructing a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump's campaign. He pleaded not guilty this week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Roger Stone, longtime friend and confidant of President Donald Trump, speaks to members of the media in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Stone is accused of lying to lawmakers, engaging in witness tampering and obstructing a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump's campaign. He pleaded not guilty this week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump's longtime friend and confidant Roger Stone speaks to members of the media at JW Marriot in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, arrives at Federal Court, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Washington. Stone was arrested in the special counsel's Russia investigation and was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing the probe. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
People gather to show support and protest former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, after he departed federal court in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Stone left the federal courthouse without speaking publicly after entering a not guilty plea to charges filed in the special counsel's Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JANUARY 27: Trump ally Roger Stone Whom Robert Mueller recently arrested in a pre dawn raid at this home by the head of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference, while he was in the house filming with Infowars reporter Owen Shroyer he just sent his second wife Nydia Bertran Stone out Shopping Credit: Hoo-Me.com / MediaPunch *** NO NY PAPERS*** /IPX
FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JANUARY 26: First picture of Trump ally Roger Stone (Born: August 27, 1952 age 66 years) at his home after Muller Arrest. Rodger was in great sprits with a big thumbs up on January 26, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida People: Roger Stone Credit: Hoo-Me.com / MediaPunch *** NY PAPERS OUT***** /IPX
Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone walks out of the federal courthouse following a hearing, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Stone was arrested Friday in the special counsel's Russia investigation and was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing the probe. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump, left, leaves the federal courthouse with his attorney Grant Smith following a hearing, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Stone was arrested Friday in the special counsel's Russia investigation and was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing the probe. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump, left, and radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, right, enter the House Judiciary Committee hearing room to hear testimony by Google CEO Sundar Pichai, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Longtime Donald Trump associate Roger Stone arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Washington. Stone says there is "not one shred of evidence" that he was involved with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Stone's interview comes as the House and Senate intelligence panels are looking into the Russian meddling and possible links to Trump's campaign. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Political consultant Roger Stone attends a screening of "Get Me Roger Stone" at the SVA Theatre during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 23, 2017 in New York. (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)
Political consultant Roger Stone attends a screening of "Get Me Roger Stone" at the SVA Theatre during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 23, 2017 in New York. (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Scott Fredericksen, whose nearly 30-year career in public service includes a stint as chief of the criminal division for the Eastern District of Virginia, said that the seven-to-nine-year recommended sentence for Stone falls within federal sentencing guidelines and that while it was arguably a “heavy recommendation,” it was well within the expected range for a defendant convicted for Stone’s crimes.

“It wasn’t a number that was just picked out of thin air by prosecutors to be tough. It’s determined by the federal sentencing guidelines which is applicable to everyone who ends up being convicted before our federal courts,” Fredericksen said in an interview.

The prosecutors were right to be upset over the reversal, according to Fredericksen.

“They resigned based on principle,” he said. “The principle is that the president of the United States has absolutely no business involving himself in criminal prosecutions.”

Fredericksen said he was particularly troubled by the fact that Barr’s decision to overrule the prosecutors coincided with a tweet from the president expressing his dismay at the sentencing recommendation. 

“It was inappropriate for the attorney general to weigh in and countermand the recommendations of career prosecutors,” he said. “There is no precedent like this in the history of the Department of Justice of which I’m aware and that’s why it is a sad day for the Department of Justice.”

William Yeomans, another veteran federal prosecutor, called the episode “incredibly unusual.”

“I don’t know of an example like this,” Yeomans, who spent 26 years in the civil rights division at the Department of Justice and subsequently served as chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with Yahoo News. “What’s extraordinary about this is the Department of Justice filed its sentencing recommendation in court and then the president tweeted and then the Department of Justice criticized its own sentencing recommendation.”

'This looks inescapably like political influence...'

Yeomans, now a professor at Columbia Law School, said he worries that the attorney general's decision to overrule his own prosecutors is a sign that Trump will pardon Stone.

“This looks inescapably like political influence forcing the Department of Justice to change its position, and it’s particularly troubling, because this is a case where the president has a strong interest in the defendant, Roger Stone, who was convicted of obstructing Congress’s investigation into the president’s campaign and its connection with Russia,” Yeomans said.  

A recent former senior Department of Justice official said he believes the episode may have resulted from the career prosecutors not checking with the U.S. attorney overseeing the case before issuing their recommended sentence. “Who was watching this?” the former senior official said. “It should not be the case that a recommendation has been made by the Department of Justice and the criminal division leadership hasn't been briefed on the recommendation and this is one of the highest profile cases in the country.

“People in the know agree that they didn't get the right sign offs before they sent this letter [recommending 7-9 years] over,” the former official said.

An email sent to one of the prosecutors, Jonathan Kravis, was not answered and the Department of Justice did not return calls seeking comment.

The former senior official said that while there is not an absolute rule requiring federal prosecutors to check with leadership before issuing a sentencing recommendation, in a case as politically sensitive as Stone’s, it is highly unusual to see a U.S. attorney and criminal division leadership surprised by a sentencing recommendation.

This official added that while the seven-to-nine years recommended may be within the sentencing guidelines, “everybody knows there are aspects of the guidelines that are out of whack with justice. ... Sometimes the guidelines overstate the seriousness of the charges because they enhance sentences.”

Jennifer Daskal, a former counsel for the assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration and now a professor at American University Washington College of Law, told Yahoo News she is worried about the precedent Barr has set.

“The use of the criminal justice system, including sentence length, to punish and reward individuals based on whether or not they support the president is hugely concerning,” Daskal said. “Whether or not that happened here, it certainly looks like it. And even the appearance of that kind of politicization seriously undermines the rule of law.”

Read Full Story