Senior law enforcement officials intervened to seek a more lenient prison sentence for President Trump’s friend and ally Roger J. Stone Jr. for political reasons, a former prosecutor on the case is expected to testify before Congress, citing his supervisor’s account of the matter, reported the New York Times.
“What I heard — repeatedly — was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president,” the prosecutor, Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, said in a written opening statement submitted on Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. A copy was obtained by The New York Times.
Mr. Zelinsky is expected to be joined by another current Justice Department employee, John W. Elias, a senior career official in the antitrust division, who will tell the committee that under Attorney General William P. Barr’s leadership, the division was forced for political reasons to pursue unjustified investigations of the fledgling legal marijuana industry and an antipollution pact between California and several automakers.
Democrats have portrayed both men as whistle-blowers who are covered by laws protecting civil servants who share information with Congress. Their emergence now, as Mr. Barr battles questions over the abrupt firing last week of the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan who led investigations into Mr. Trump’s associates, is certain to fuel charges by Democratic and some Republican critics that the attorney general has corruptly bent the department to meet Mr. Trump’s interests and his own.
But at least in the case of Mr. Zelinsky, the secondhand nature of his account of the intervention by Mr. Barr and the acting U.S. attorney in Washington at the time, Timothy Shea, could undercut some of its potential force. And even Democrats concede that with just months left in Mr. Trump’s term, any revelations laid before Congress may have little effect on the fate of Mr. Barr, who has repeatedly and unabashedly defended his actions, or the department.
A department spokeswoman said that the attorney general determined that prosecutors’ recommendation for Mr. Stone’s sentence was “excessive and inconsistent with similar cases” and noted that a judge ultimately sentenced Mr. Stone to about half the time — 40 months — that the prosecutors had originally proposed.
“Mr. Zelinsky’s allegations concerning the U.S. attorney’s motivation are based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best), not firsthand knowledge,” said the spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, adding that Mr. Zelinsky never spoke with any member of the department’s leadership about the case.
The intervention in the Stone case is expected to be a major focus of the hearing. Mr. Zelinsky and three fellow career prosecutors recommended to a judge in February that Mr. Stone receive seven to nine years in prison, in line with standard guidelines, for perjury and other crimes related to his sabotaging of a congressional inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and links to the Trump campaign. Mr. Stone, a longtime confidant of Mr. Trump’s, served as the Trump campaign’s principal intermediary to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign at the time it was publishing information stolen by the Russians and damaging to Hillary Clinton.
But as Mr. Trump attacked that sentencing recommendation on Twitter, the department began to work on a new, more lenient recommendation to the judge meting out Mr. Stone’s punishment. The four prosecutors quit the case, and the request was submitted without their signatures.
Ms. Kupec said that Mr. Barr had not discussed the sentencing request with the president and that he had decided to intervene before Mr. Trump tweeted about it.
Mr. Zelinsky will say that a supervisor working on the case told him there were “political reasons” for more senior officials to resist and then override prosecutors’ recommendation to follow the sentencing guidelines and that the supervisor agreed that doing so “was unethical and wrong.”
Mr. Zelinsky did not say in his written statement who specifically told him about what was going on. Jonathan Kravis, another prosecutor who quit the case in protest — and, unlike Mr. Zelinsky, also resigned from the Justice Department — has written in an op-ed in The Washington Post that he “resigned because I was not willing to serve a department that would so easily abdicate its responsibility to dispense impartial justice.”
The intervention came days after Mr. Barr had maneuvered the Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, out of her role and installed Mr. Shea, who had been a close aide from his own office.
Mr. Zelinsky planned to say he was told that Mr. Shea “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break” and complied because he was “afraid of the president.” He and other line prosecutors were told that the case was “not the hill worth dying on” and that they could lose their jobs if they did not fall in line, according to the statement.
Mr. Zelinsky, a prosecutor in Baltimore, had been detailed to Washington to continue work on the Stone case that was begun while he worked for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Stone, citing the spread of the coronavirus in federal prisons, asked a federal judge Tuesday for a two-month delay before he is forced to begin serving his sentence, which he was due to report for next week. His motion said that the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington had told his lawyers that based on the department’s guidance about handling pandemic-related issues, the government was not opposed.
According to Mr. Elias’s written opening statement, he will accuse the department of inappropriately using its antitrust power to investigate 10 proposed mergers and acquisitions in the marijuana industry because Mr. Barr “did not like the nature of their underlying business.”
The reviews consumed a large amount of the antitrust division’s resources, he said, and document demands imposed a heavy burden on the companies, which were forced to produce hundreds of thousands of pages that the department in some cases did not even look at.
At least one merger fell through and stock prices dropped as a result, he said, even though there was never a justification in competitiveness analysis — like whether the companies trying to merge would have too much market share — for using antitrust powers to essentially harass the firms.
Mr. Elias said that after division staff members expressed concerns, the head of the division, Makan Delrahim, held an all-staff meeting in September and “acknowledged that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices in the D.O.J. headquarters building.”
Mr. Elias added, “Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation.”
Mr. Elias’s statement also portrayed an antitrust review of a deal struck by four major automakers with the State of California to voluntarily continue to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions on new cars, despite the Trump administration’s rollback of federal standards, as politically motivated rather than grounded in the facts and the law.
Mr. Trump had attacked the deal on Twitter, and the division began its review without going through normal procedures, Mr. Elias said.
Asked for a response, another Justice Department official familiar with the inquiry said that it was opened because of news reporting that raised potential antitrust concerns, not because Mr. Trump was angry.
Mr. Elias also said the department had all the information it needed to close the investigation without action in November, but “the political leadership” then asked staff members to examine California’s announcement that it would buy only cars that met the standards to keep the inquiry going until February.
While the testimony from the two current Justice Department officials about inside deliberation is expected to be the centerpiece of the hearing, the panel will also take testimony from two Republican Justice Department officials from previous administrations — Donald Ayer, who was the deputy attorney general under President George Bush, and Michael Mukasey, who was the attorney general under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Ayer has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Barr, whom he served alongside. Republicans on the committee invited Mr. Mukasey.
House Democrats have made clear they are also interested in learning more about the firing of the top prosecutor in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman. Mr. Berman initially and publicly resisted Mr. Barr’s pressure to step aside, prompting a furor among Democrats and former Justice Department officials who warned that the White House was trying to force him out because he continued to pursue sensitive cases that irked Mr. Trump.
The Judiciary Committee has reached out to Mr. Berman, but he is not expected to appear on Wednesday.
Democrats may subpoena Mr. Barr himself as soon as this week to testify, but there is no guarantee he would appear. The attorney general has resisted such appearances in the past and his department has promulgated legal guidance challenging the validity of some past subpoenas from House Democrats, effectively shielding officials from testimony.