A federal prosecutor who withdrew from the Roger Stone case is planning to tell Congress on Wednesday that the Justice Department’s (DOJ) sentencing instructions for Roger Stone were based on “political considerations.” The DOJ, in response, has pushed back, saying that his account was not based on “first-hand knowledge.”
Aaron Zelinsky was one of the four prosecutors who withdrew from the Stone case after department leaders decided to override the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years in prison. Zelinsky is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, alongside John Elias, the acting chief of staff to the assistant attorney general of the antitrust division, and former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer.
Zelinsky, who was a special assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, intends to testify that the DOJ had handled the Stone sentencing in an “unusual and unprecedented way” and that some members of the department were giving Stone “unprecedentedly favorable treatment” because of his relationship with President Donald Trump.
“What I heard–repeatedly–was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President,” Zelinsky will say, according to a prepared testimony (pdf).
“I was told that the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break, and that the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing instructions to us were based on political considerations. I was also told that the acting U.S. Attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was ‘afraid of the President,'” he added.
DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec disputed Zelinsky’s account in a statement on Tuesday, saying that Zelinsky, who did not have any discussions with any member of political leadership about the sentencing, had based his allegations on his “own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best), not first-hand knowledge.”
“The Attorney General determined the high sentence proposed by the line prosecutors in the Roger Stone case was excessive and inconsistent with similar cases. In the interest of ensuring the imposition of a fair sentence, the Attorney General directed Tim Shea, who was then U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, to leave the sentencing to the discretion of the judge. The judge ultimately sentenced Mr. Stone to half the time that the line prosecutors had originally proposed. As he has previously stated, the Attorney General did not discuss the sentencing of Roger Stone with the President or anyone else at the White House and had made the decision to correct the filing before the President tweeted about the case,” Kupec said in the statement.
“Notably, Mr. Zelinsky, a line prosecutor, did not have any discussion with the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, or any member of political leadership at the Department about the sentencing; instead, Mr. Zelinsky’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.
“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. 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,” she added.
He will testify how the DOJ was “exerting significant pressure on the line prosecutors in the case to obscure the correct Sentencing Guidelines calculation to which Roger Stone was subject–and to water down and in some cases outright distort the events that transpired in his trial and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction.”
Zelinsky said after he learned that his team was being pressured to seek a lower sentencing range, he and his colleagues pushed back and repeatedly argued that by “recommending a below-Guidelines sentence without support for doing so” would be “inappropriate under DOJ policy and the practice of the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office.” He also added that a lower sentencing recommendation was also not warranted given “the nature of Stone’s criminal activity and his wrongful conduct throughout the case,” according to the prepared remarks.
“[W]e were told by a supervisor that the U.S. Attorney had political reasons for his instructions, which our supervisor agreed was unethical and wrong,” Zenlisky will say. “We responded that cutting a defendant a break because of his relationship to the President undermined the fundamental principles of the Department of Justice, and that we felt that was an important principle to defend.”
The prosecutors persisted with their recommendation and ultimately filed the recommendation, with approval, on Feb. 10 with language about Stone’s conduct removed from the memo, the prepared remarks said.
At around 3 a.m. the next morning, Trump weighed in on Twitter about the 7-to-9-year recommendation, calling it “horrible and very unfair.” Hours later, media began reporting that the department would reduce the prison term it was seeking. A senior DOJ official reportedly told CBS News’ Catherine Herridge that the department was shocked to see the sentencing recommendation and that it isn’t what the department was briefed on.
Zelinsky said that he and the three prosecutors repeatedly asked to see that new memorandum prior to its filing but their requests were denied. Ultimately, the four prosecutors withdrew from the case.
Stone was eventually sentenced on Feb. 20 to three years four months in prison. He was convicted in November 2019 on all seven counts he was charged with, including obstruction, witness tampering, and making false statements to Congress. He is expected to report to prison on June 30, although he has said that he plans to court this week in an attempt to delay the start of his sentence.