A government lawyer says he resigned from the team prosecuting longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone because the Justice Department inappropriately pushed for a more lenient sentence.
"I have never seen political influence play a role in prosecutorial decision making, with one exception: United States v. Roger Stone," said federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky in testimony prepared for a hearing Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
Zelinsky was one of four prosecutors who withdrew from the case in February when asked to submit a revised legal filing that played down Stone's criminal conduct and invited the judge to impose a lesser sentence. The Justice Department pressured the line prosecutors to "water down and in some cases outright distort" the nature of Stone's conduct, Zelinsky said.
"What I heard— repeatedly— was that Roger Stone was bring treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president," he said. He said that Tim Shea, appointed by Attorney General William Barr to be acting U.S. Attorney in Washington, "was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of Justice to cut Stone a break."
Zelinsky did not say who he thought was exerting the pressure. But he said he was told by supervisors that Shea gave Stone favorable treatment "because he was afraid of the president." One of the supervisors said accommodating political pressures was unethical and wrong. "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."
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Stone to three and a third years in prison for lying to Congress about his efforts to discover what Wikileaks founder Julian Assange planned to do with Clinton campaign emails hacked by the Russians. She denied Stone's motion for a new trial, rejecting his claim that a juror was biased against him.
Zelinsky and the other career prosecutors initially recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years. But Barr intervened and directed the government to submit a new court filing, saying a three-to-four-year sentence would be "more line with the typical sentences" in similar cases. The reversal came only hours after President Donald Trump tweeted that the original sentencing recommendation was "a horrible and very unfair situation."
Barr insisted that he acted on his own and was unaware of the president's tweet until after directing the change. And in a television interview, he said the president's tweets were making it harder for him to do his job.
Stone was ordered to report to a federal prison in Georgia on June 30. But on Tuesday his lawyers asked the judge to postpone his voluntary reporting date to Sept. 3 "in light of his heightened risk of serious medical consequences from exposure to the COVID-19 virus in the close confines" of a prison. The Justice Department does not oppose the postponement, his lawyers said.