World

Paul Manafort released from prison due to COVID-19 concerns, says lawyer

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's onetime presidential campaign chairman who was convicted as part of the special counsel's Russia investigation, has been released from federal prison to serve the rest of his sentence in home confinement due to concerns about the coronavirus, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Manafort, 71, was released from a Pennsylvania prison and will serve out his sentence at home

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort exits a New York courtroom on June 27, 2019. Manafort's age and pre-existing conditions were cited as reasons for his release from a correctional facility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump's onetime presidential campaign chairman who was convicted as part of the special counsel's Russia investigation, has been released from federal prison to serve the rest of his sentence in home confinement due to concerns about the coronavirus, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Manafort, 71, was released Wednesday morning from FCI Loretto, a low-security prison in Pennsylvania, according to his attorney Todd Blanche. Manafort had been serving more than seven years in prison following his conviction.

His lawyers had asked the Bureau of Prisons to release him to home confinement, arguing that he was at high risk for coronavirus because of his age and pre-existing medical conditions. Manafort was hospitalized in December after suffering from a heart-related condition, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press at the time. They were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Manafort was among the first people to be charged in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, which examined possible co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

Manafort, who was prosecuted in two federal courts, was convicted by a jury in Virginia in 2018 and later pleaded guilty in Washington. He was sentenced last March and was immediately hit with state charges in New York that could put him outside the president's power to pardon. New York prosecutors have accused him of giving false information on a mortgage loan application.

Manafort doesn't meet stated release criteria

Manafort's release comes as prison advocates and some congressional leaders have been pressing the Justice Department for weeks to release at-risk inmates ahead of a potential outbreak. They argue the public health guidance to stay nearly two metres away from other people is nearly impossible behind bars.

But Manafort did not meet qualifications set by the Bureau of Prisons for potential release in the pandemic, and the bureau did not answer questions about why Manafort was freed.

Under the bureau's guidelines, priority is supposed to be given to those inmates who have served half of their sentence or inmates with 18 months or less left and who served at least 25 per cent of their time. The bureau has discretion about who can be released.

Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons in March and April to increase the use of home confinement and expedite the release of eligible high-risk inmates, beginning at three prisons identified as coronavirus hot spots. There are no confirmed coronavirus cases at FCI Loretto.

As of Tuesday, 2,818 federal inmates and 262 BOP staff members had positive test results for COVID-19 at federal prisons across the country. Fifty inmates had died.

An agency spokesperson said more than 2,400 inmates have been moved to home confinement since March 26, when Barr first issued a home confinement memo, and more than 1,200 others have been approved and are in the pipeline to be released.

The bureau has given contradictory and confusing guidance on how it is deciding who is released to home confinement in an effort to combat the virus, changing requirements, setting up inmates for release and backing off, and refusing to explain how it decides who gets out and when.

Kathy Hawk Sawyer, a senior adviser at the Bureau of Prisons who formerly led the agency, said in an interview in late April that to suggest the bureau was "only identifying high-profile white collar inmates for home confinement, is absurd."

Democratic Rep. Nanette D. Barragán of California questioned the fairness of the decision to release Manafort in a tweet on Wednesday. Barragán pointed to the low numbers of inmates released at Terminal Island in Los Angeles County, which has seen a considerable cluster and seven coronavirus-related deaths, according to a report Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times.

Ex-Trump lawyer Cohen still imprisoned

Manafort is one of a number of people who worked on Trump's campaign or for him at the Trump Organization to be convicted of crimes recently, with three of them sentenced to significant prison time.

His release was first reported by ABC News, which last month reported that former Trump adviser Roger Stone won't report to prison for a 40-month sentence until late May at the earliest due to COVID-19 concerns.

Stone was convicted on a seven-count indictment that accused him of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing a congressional investigation, in a case that saw the U.S. Department of Justice express unusual concern about the potential sentencing length for the veteran Washington operator.

Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to federal campaign finance violations, including over "hush money" payments to two women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

Lanny Davis, Cohen's lawyer, expressed his hope on Wednesday that his client could be released from a New York prison.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represented Daniels in lawsuits against Trump, was temporarily released from a New York jail in late April. Avenatti was awaiting sentencing for trying to extort up to $25 million from Nike. 

With files from CBC News

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