World

Team of prosecutors quits after lighter sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone

Four lawyers who prosecuted Roger Stone quit the case Tuesday after the Justice Department said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for President Donald Trump's longtime ally and confidant.

Trump condemns recommended sentence, denies intervening in decision

Roger Stone faces a Feb. 20 sentencing. He was found guilty of seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Four lawyers who prosecuted Roger Stone quit the case Tuesday after the U.S. Justice Department said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for President Donald Trump's longtime ally and confidant.

The decision by the Justice Department came just hours after Trump complained that the recommended sentence for Stone was "very horrible and unfair." The Justice Department said the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump's tweet — and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it.

The four attorneys, including two who were early members of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia team, had made up the Justice Department's trial team and had signed onto a Monday court filing that recommended up to nine years in prison for Stone. 

Jonathan Kravis resigned his position as an assistant U.S. attorney. He had been a veteran prosecutor in Washington, and though not part of Robert Mueller's original team, was nonetheless involved in multiple cases brought by the special counsel's office. Besides the Stone prosecution, Kravis had also signed onto the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, which resolved with a guilty plea, and against a Russian troll farm accused of sponsoring a cover social media campaign aimed at dividing public opinion during the 2016 presidential election.

Aaron Zelinsky quit the case and his job in Washington, and would go back to his job as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore. He was working there when he was selected in 2017 for the Mueller team. He was involved in cases aimed at determining what knowledge the Trump campaign had about Democratic emails that were hacked by Russia and what efforts Trump aides made to get information about them. He was also involved in the prosecution of George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign aide who played a critical role in the FBI launching its investigation in summer 2016.

A third prosecutor, Adam Jed, who was an original member of Mueller's team, also withdrew from the case. His status at the Justice Department was not clear. Before joining Mueller's team, he worked on civil cases at the Justice Department.

By Tuesday evening, a fourth prosecutor, Michael Marando, had also left the case.

After the attorneys quit the case, Justice Department officials filed a revised sentencing memorandum with the judge, arguing its initial recommendation could be "considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances," but that it would defer to the court. None of the original prosecutors in Stone's case signed onto the revised memo.

The Justice Department said the decision to shorten the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump's tweet — and that prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it.

The move was sure to raise questions about political interference and whether Trump's views hold unusual sway over the Justice Department, which is meant to operate independently of the White House in criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Declines comment on possible pardon

Trump said he did not intervene to ask the Justice Department to seek the shorter prison sentence for Stone, but Trump said he would be allowed to do so.

He declined to comment when asked by reporters at the White House whether he was considering issuing a pardon for Stone.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has been a steady ally of Trump's, clearing the president of obstruction of justice even when special counsel Mueller had pointedly declined to do so and declaring that the FBI's Russia investigation — which resulted in charges against Stone — had been based on a "bogus narrative."

Democrats lambasted the decision. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the rule of law is being "totally perverted to Donald Trump's own personal desires and needs."

On Monday night, prosecutors had recommended Stone serve seven to nine years behind bars after being convicted of charges including lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election.

The recommendation raised the prospect that Stone could receive the harshest sentence of any of the half-dozen Trump aides charged in Mueller's probe.

Rare for DOJ to reverse decision 

It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. Normally, U.S. attorneys have wide latitude to recommend sentences on cases that they prosecuted.

Sentencing decisions are ultimately up to the judge, who in this case may side with the original Justice Department recommendation.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has repeatedly scolded Stone for his out-of-court behaviour, which included a social media post he made of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun.

The judge barred Stone from social media last July after concluding that he repeatedly flouted her gag order.

Trump called out prosecutors involved in the case after they proposed a sentence of seven to nine years for Stone. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Besides, judges invariably frown upon crimes that they see as perverting the functions of the criminal justice system, such as making false statements or obstructing an investigation.

The Justice Department plans to refile the recommendation later Tuesday.

Federal prosecutors also recently softened their sentencing position on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying that they would not oppose a probation of punishment after initially saying that he deserved up to six months in prison for lying to the FBI. The Flynn prosecution is also being handled by the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington.

The White House referred questions about the decision to the Justice Department.

In the sentencing memorandum filed Monday evening, prosecutors asked for Stone to serve between 87 and 108 months in federal prison — the sentence they said was in line with federal guidelines. Such a sentence would send a message to deter others who might consider lying or obstructing a congressional probe or tampering with witnesses, they said.

Stone's actions 'not a one-off mistake'

The prosecutors wrote in the court papers that "Stone's actions were not a one-off mistake in judgment" and that he "decided to double — and triple — down on his criminal conduct by tampering with a witness for months in order to make sure his obstruction would be successful."

Stone has denied wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated. He did not take the stand during his trial and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defence.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has been a steady ally of Trump's, clearing the president of obstruction of justice. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Witnesses in the case testified that Trump's campaign viewed Stone as an "access point" to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, which was in possession of more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and tried to use him to get advance word about hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton.

Prosecutors charged that Stone lied to Congress about his conversations about WikiLeaks with New York radio host Randy Credico — who had scored an interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016 — and conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

During the 2016 campaign, Stone mentioned in interviews and public appearances that he was in contact with Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans. But he started pressing Credico to broker a contact, and Credico testified that he told Stone to work through his own intermediary.

Earlier testimony revealed that Stone, while appearing before the House intelligence committee, named Credico as his intermediary to Assange and pressured Credico not to contradict him.

After Credico was contacted by Congress, he reached out to Stone, who told him he should "stonewall it" and "plead the fifth," he testified. Credico also testified during Stone's trial that Stone repeatedly told him to "do a 'Frank Pentangeli,"' a reference to a character in The Godfather: Part II who lies before Congress.

Prosecutors also charged that Stone had threatened Credico's therapy dog, Bianca, saying he was "going to take that dog away from you."

now