DoJ Whistleblower at the House Judiciary Committee – June 24th, 2020

 

Barr’s alleged interference in Stone case makes Trump’s potential pardon more scandalous

via WaPo Daily 202 – By James Hohmann with Mariana Alfaro

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Lady Justice is not blind in Bill Barr’s Justice Department. That is the central takeaway from sworn testimony submitted ahead of a congressional hearing this afternoon by star federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who is speaking out publicly for the first time about the attorney general’s hands-on intervention to scale back the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, President Trump’s longtime confidant and political consigliere.

Zelinsky plans to tell the House Judiciary Committee that Barr and his top deputies issued inappropriate orders “based on political considerations,” that prosecutors faced “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break,” and that there was an expectation Stone should be treated “differently and more leniently” because of his “relationship with the president.”

A mountain of evidence shows that Stone briefed Trump and other senior campaign officials during the 2016 campaign on what he knew about plans by WikiLeaks to release damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The emails the group released had been hacked by Russian military intelligence. Stone was convicted by a federal jury on seven counts of lying to Congress and witness tampering.

Career prosecutors recommended that Stone serve between seven and nine years based on a number of aggravating factors, including threats to harm a witness who could incriminate him if he cooperated with authorities. “Prepare to die,” Stone messaged the witness, Randy Credico. Prosecutors concluded that Stone’s perjury also resulted in “substantial interference in the administration of justice,” and they said that he continued trying to obstruct justice after he was indicted.

After Trump tweeted that this recommendation was unfair, Barr directed the Justice Department to withdraw it. A new filing said three to four years was “more typical” in cases like Stone’s. In February, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Stone to 40 months. Stone was supposed to report to prison next Tuesday, on June 30, to begin serving his sentence. But his lawyers asked yesterday to postpone his surrender date until Sept. 3, citing the risk that the 67-year-old could contract the novel coronavirus. The Justice Department did not oppose this request. After losing a motion for a retrial in April, Stone is appealing his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Zelinsky’s 4,600-word opening statement, which is worth reading in full, alleges that prosecutors were told “to water down and in some cases outright distort events that transpired in his trial, and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction” to justify a lighter sentencing request. Zelinsky refused and withdrew from the case, along with three other career prosecutors. He will testify that Trump appointee Tim Shea, a former top counselor to Barr who was acting U.S. attorney for D.C. at the time, agreed to give Stone “unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was ‘afraid of the President.’”

The revelations about the internal machinations inside the Justice Department are especially notable as Trump has hinted strongly that he intends to pardon Stone before he goes to prison. The president tweeted earlier this month that Stone was the “victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt” and should “sleep well at night.”

Redacted portions of special counsel Bob Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election that were released to the public last Friday night show that investigators considered the possibility that Trump lied to them under oath about his 2016 conversations about WikiLeaks. Multiple Trump campaign aides told investigators that the then-candidate had engaged in conversations about what information WikiLeaks might release. In his written answers to questions from Mueller, Trump said he did not recall discussing WikiLeaks with Stone. But multiple witnesses told Mueller’s team that they were present during such discussions.

“It is possible that, by the time the President submitted his written answers two years after the relevant events had occurred, he no longer had clear recollections of his discussions with Stone or his knowledge of Stone’s asserted communications with WikiLeaks,” the newly unsealed portions of the Mueller report say. “But the President’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.”

The Yale-educated Zelinsky, who is in his late 30s, clerked for then-Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. As a special assistant at the State Department, he worked on cases involving Americans held hostage abroad. In 2014, he joined the Justice Department – working for then-Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. Zelinsky earned an award for Excellence in Prosecution of Organized Crime. Then Mueller tapped him to join the team of powerhouse lawyers he assembled as special counsel. That’s how Zelinsky got involved in the Stone prosecution. And he stayed with the case after Mueller stepped down. Now he’s returned to Baltimore, where he is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Maryland district. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Zelinsky never had any direct discussion about the sentencing with the attorney general, the U.S. attorney or other political appointees at the department. She said, as she has before, that Barr did not speak with Trump before the president tweeted about Stone’s sentencing. “Mr. Zelinksy’s allegations concerning the U.S. Attorney’s motivation are based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best), not first-hand knowledge,” Kupec said in a statement.

She added that Barr believed the initial sentencing recommendation was “excessive and inconsistent with similar cases,” and that this is why he got involved. “The Attorney General stated during his confirmation hearing that it his job to ensure that the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law is above and away from politics,” Kupec said. “He has and will continue to approach all cases at the Department of Justice with that commitment to the rule of law and the fair and impartial administration of justice.”

Barr’s record since taking over as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer last year belies this assertion. Just this weekend, Barr orchestrated the firing of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, who has prosecuted and continued to investigate members of Trump’s inner circle. Earlier this month, he was a party to the violent dispersal of largely peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square before standing beside the president during his Bible photo op.

In May, Barr intervened to dismiss the guilty plea of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, for lying to federal agents about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russia’s ambassador. The D.C. Circuit ruled this morning that U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan cannot scrutinize the Justice Department’s decision to drop its prosecution of Flynn and must dismiss the case. In a 2-1 decision, the court said it is not within the judge’s power to prolong the prosecution or examine Barr’s motives.

Last year, Barr offered a highly misleading summary of the Mueller report, in a way that was favorable to the president, before releasing the redacted version to the public. He refused to defend the Affordable Care Act against a court challenge. He was held in contempt of Congress last year for defying a House subpoena. In fact, he has avoided testifying before the House Judiciary Committee since taking the job. And a U.S. attorney he appointed continues probe the conduct of Justice Department and FBI officials in the Russia probe, something Trump long sought.

In addition to Zelinsky, John Elias, who works in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, will testify at this afternoon’s committee hearing that Barr ordered staff to investigate marijuana company mergers because he “did not like the nature of their underlying business.” According to his prepared opening statement, his office launched 10 reviews of mergers in the marijuana industry as a result and was also ordered to probe a deal between automakers and California after Trump tweeted about the matter.

“Based on what I have seen, and what my colleagues saw and described to me, I was concerned enough to report certain antitrust investigations launched under Attorney General Barr to the Department of Justice inspector general,” Elias plans to say. “I asked him to investigate whether these matters constituted an abuse of authority, a gross waste of funds and gross mismanagement.”

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