Politics Career Justice Department attorneys to tell Congress leadership abused its power in Roger Stone case, other investigations

19:36  24 june  2020
19:36  24 june  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

Prosecutor in Roger Stone Case Will Testify About Barr’s Intervention

  Prosecutor in Roger Stone Case Will Testify About Barr’s Intervention Two Justice Department officials have agreed to testify under subpoena before the House Judiciary Committee next week about politicization under Attorney General William P. Barr, setting up a likely fight with the department about what they will be permitted to say. House Democrats issued subpoenas on Tuesday to the two officials, including Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, one of the career prosecutors who quit a case against President Trump’s friend Roger J. Stone Jr. after Mr. Barr and other senior officials decided to intervene to reverse their recommendation that Mr. Stone be sentenced in accord with standard guidelines and instead requested leniency.

WASHINGTON — Still reeling from a highly public clash that led to the firing of one of its most prominent prosecutors, the Justice Department again finds itself under a glaring spotlight as two of its employees are set to tell Congress that the agency's leadership abused its power at the behest of President Donald Trump.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a building: President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr in a 2019 photo. © Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr in a 2019 photo.

Aaron Zelinsky, one of the attorneys who prosecuted Roger Stone, is expected to tell lawmakers that the Justice Department gave the GOP operative "unprecedentedly favorable treatment" and pressured prosecutors to "cut Stone a break" by recommending a lenient sentence because he is an ally of the president. He and the other prosecutors "were instructed" to go along, Zelinsky said, because the case was "not a hill worth dying on."

Prosecutor says he was pressured to cut Roger Stone 'a break' because of his ties to Trump

  Prosecutor says he was pressured to cut Roger Stone 'a break' because of his ties to Trump Aaron Zelinsky will testify before Congress about alleged political interference at the Justice Department."What I heard – repeatedly – was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President," Aaron Zelinsky, one of four prosecutors who quit the case, plans to tell the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, according to his prepared testimony. "I was also told that the acting U.S. Attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was 'afraid of the President.

John Elias, an attorney in the department's Antitrust Division, is expected to testify that the agency's political appointees pursued unwarranted investigations over the objections of career employees. One investigation, Elias said, was launched after a Trump tweet. 

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On Wednesday, the pair will offer blistering criticisms of Justice Department leadership before the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating allegations of political interference within the agency.

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'Unprecedentedly favorable treatment': DOJ gave Roger Stone favorable treatment because he is an ally of the president, prosecutor says

Such potentially damaging testimony – delivered in a public spectacle – is unusual as career Justice Department attorneys typically don't go before Congress, let alone publicly rebuke their own superiors. A 2000 Justice Department letter said the agency believed its career prosecutors should not be required to testify before Congress because doing so could compromise their independence. 

That Zelinsky and Elias are doing so says a lot about concerns among career employees over what they see as politicization of the Justice Department, said William Yeomans, a Justice Department veteran who served under five Republican and Democratic presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.

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"It's incredibly disturbing. And I think it's quite courageous that they're coming forward," Yeomans said. "There's very strong ethic in DOJ against going public. They avoid the press, they avoid publicity. For these career prosecutors to think things have gone so far off the rails that they need to speak out, that speaks volumes about what's going on inside the Department of Justice."

Testimonies are latest allegations of political meddling

Zelinsky and Elias were subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, but Yeomans said the two could have defied the congressional subpoena as others in the Trump administration have done during the impeachment proceedings against the president.

The testimonies are the latest in a parade of allegations that Attorney General William Barr has turned the Justice Department into a political annex of the president.

Last weekend, Barr and Geoffrey Berman, the former Manhattan chief federal prosecutor, clashed over control of one of the Justice Department's most powerful offices that prosecuted and investigated several Trump allies. Barr had announced that Berman will be resigning as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York to make way for the president's favored replacement. But Berman fired back, saying he has no intention of resigning. Trump then fired Berman, ending a standoff that fueled allegations that the administration is removing those it considers to be disloyal or a threat. 

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Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he will look into the matter as part of the committee's broader investigation on the politicization of the Justice Department. Nadler, D-N.Y., told MSNBC that the committee is preparing to subpoena Barr, although it's unclear if Barr will comply.

In the fraught prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a retired federal judge accused the Justice Department of abusing its prosecutorial power by providing special treatment to an ally of the president.

'Unethical and wrong'

Zelinsky, one of the prosecutors on former special counsel Robert Mueller's team, said in his opening statement that the Justice Department's leadership from the highest levels pressured prosecutors to recommend a lenient sentence for Stone for political reasons – a move that a supervisor acknowledged was "unethical and wrong." He said he and the other prosecutors on the case repeatedly raised concerns about "such political favoritism," but their objections "were not heeded."

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Zelinsky and the three other career attorneys who prosecuted Stone quit from the case in protest. The prosecutors had recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years for Stone, whom a jury had convicted of seven crimes, including lying to Congress to protect Trump and his campaign. But the Justice Department backed away from that recommendation – an unusual move that comes after Trump's public criticism of the sentence.

The Justice Department said Zelinsky's allegations were his own interpretation of events and were not based on conversations with Barr or others in the political leadership. The department said Barr believed the sentence recommendation was too excessive and decided to "correct" it independently – without consulting Trump or anyone at the White House.

"The Attorney General stated during his confirmation hearing that it (is) his job to ensure that the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law is above and away from politics," the department said. 

The Roger Stone case: Prosecutors quit as DOJ backtracks on prison recommendation for Trump ally

Another career prosecutor, Elias, said the agency's leadership launched multiple investigations of marijuana mergers because Barr personally disfavors the cannabis industry.

In his opening statement, Elias said the head of the Antitrust Division acknowledged during a staff meeting that the investigations were launched because the cannabis industry was unpopular "on the fifth floor," a reference to Barr's office in the Justice Department's headquarters. 

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"Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation," said Elias, who joined the Justice Department in 2006. 

Elias will also testify about the Justice Department's decision to investigate whether four major automakers violated antitrust laws by striking a deal with California to reduce emissions. The companies agreed to adopt environmental standards that were stricter than the rules the Trump administration preferred, causing a series of furious tweets from the president.

"The day after the tweets, Antitrust Division political leadership instructed staff to initiate an investigation," Elias said, adding that career staff believed there was no basis for the investigation because states have wide latitude to adopt environmental regulations.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about Elias' allegations.

a man wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks with Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the © SARAH SILBIGER, POOL/AFP via Getty Images House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks with Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the "Justice in Policing Act of 2020."

What's unusual, what's not

Yeomans said it is not unusual for the Justice Department under different administrations to have varying political priorities. For example, consent decrees and investigations of police departments accused of systemic abuse was a top priority during the Obama administration. The Trump administration has moved away from consent decrees and has focused on other civil rights investigations involving religious liberty and sexual harassment.

But what's highly unusual, Yeomans said, is for the political appointees to interfere in criminal prosecutions. "To interfere in an individual case is another matter," he said.

"The Department of Justice has had its problems over the years, but it has always maintained its dignity," Yeomans said. "Its value to the country depends on its legitimacy. It depends on people believing that career prosecutors are making decisions based on facts and law. When we get away from that, the department suffers as an institution. Once legitimacy is compromised, it's hard to win back."

Another witness on Wednesday's hearing is Donald Ayer, deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush who has called for Barr to resign.

Michael Mukasey, attorney general under President George Bush and a Barr ally, will also testify. Mukasey praised Barr during his confirmation hearing last year, calling him "an honorable, decent, smart man" who will make a "superb Attorney General."

Contributing: Kevin Johnson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Career Justice Department attorneys to tell Congress leadership abused its power in Roger Stone case, other investigations

Judge rejects Roger Stone request to delay prison term .
The judge says the former Trump adviser’s health issues are under control and the facility he’ll report to has no cases of coronavirus.Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who last week ordered the former Trump adviser immediately into home confinement and to prison on July 14, said she was turning down Stone’s request for a delay until September because prosecutors have made similar arguments against releasing defendants whose health conditions were “in check.

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