Judge Defies Mueller, Hands Manafort Lenient Sentence

March 8, 2019 Updated: March 8, 2019

A federal judged sentenced veteran political operative Paul Manafort to four years in prison on March 7, defying a request by special counsel Robert Mueller for a much harsher sentence of 19 to 24 years.

District Judge T.S. Ellis called Mueller’s recommended sentence “excessive” and imposed the surprisingly lenient 47-month sentence on Manafort, 69, during a hearing in Alexandria, Virginia. The sentence was even less than the one recommended by Manafort‘s lawyers and surprised legal experts.

“This is a tremendous defeat for the special counsel’s office,” former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said.

Manafort’s sentence was less than half of what people who plead guilty and cooperate with the government typically get in similar cases, according to Mark Allenbaugh, a former attorney with the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

“Very shocking,” Allenbaugh said.

Ellis also ordered Manafort to pay a fine of $50,000 and restitution of just over $24 million.

At the hearing, Manafort asked for mercy but expressed no remorse for his actions. He was convicted by a jury last August of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts.

Manafort, brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair because of a condition called gout, listened during the hearing as Ellis extolled his “otherwise blameless” life in which he “earned the admiration of a number of people” and engaged in “a lot of good things.”

“Clearly the guidelines were way out of whack on this,” Ellis said.

Manafort was convicted as part of the special counsel’s investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mueller did not accuse Manafort–or anyone else–of colluding with Russia.

Ellis noted that Manafort “is not before the court for any allegations that he, or anyone at his direction, colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.”

Prosecutors accused Manafort of hiding from the U.S. government millions of dollars he earned as a consultant for Ukraine’s government. After his income from Ukraine dried up, he lied to banks to secure loans and maintain an opulent lifestyle, prosecutors said.

“These are serious crimes, we understand that,” said Thomas Zehnle, one of Manafort’s lawyers. “Tax evasion is by no means jaywalking. But it’s not narcotics trafficking.”

Ellis, appointed to the bench by Republican former President Ronald Reagan, called the sentence “sufficiently punitive,” and noted that Manafort’s time already served would be subtracted from the 47 months. Manafort has been jailed since June 2018.

Manafort’s legal troubles are not over. He faces sentencing next Wednesday in Washington in a separate case for two conspiracy charges involving lobbying and money laundering to which he pleaded guilty last September.

Legal experts said the light sentence from Ellis could prompt U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to impose a sentence closer to the maximum of 10 years in the Washington case, and order that the sentence run after the current one is completed rather than concurrently. Jackson was appointed by Democratic former President Barack Obama.

‘In Shambles’

Before the sentencing, Manafort expressed no remorse but talked about how the case had been difficult for him and his family. Manafort, who opted not to testify during his trial, told Ellis “to say I have been humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement.” He described his life as “professionally and financially in shambles.”

The judge told Manafort, “I was surprised I did not hear you express regret for engaging in wrongful conduct.”

During a break shortly before the sentence was handed down, Manafort turned around and blew his wife, Kathleen, a kiss.

The case capped a stunning downfall for Manafort, a prominent figure in Republican Party circles for decades who also worked as a consultant to such international figures as former Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

During the trial, Ellis repeatedly interrupted prosecutors, telling them to stop using the word “oligarch” to describe people associated with Manafort because it made him seem “despicable,” and objected to pictures of Manafort’s luxury items they planned to show jurors.

“It isn’t a crime to have a lot of money and be profligate in your spending,” Ellis told prosecutors during the trial.

Prosecutor Greg Andres urged Ellis to impose a steep sentence. “This case must stand as a beacon to others that this conduct cannot be accepted,” Andres told the hearing on March 7.

Manafort is the only one of the 34 people and three companies charged by Mueller to have gone to trial. Several others including former campaign aides Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen have pleaded guilty, while longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone has pleaded not guilty.

Trump, a Republican who has called Mueller’s investigation a politically motivated “witch hunt,” has not ruled out giving Manafort a presidential pardon, saying in November, “I wouldn’t take it off the table.”

“There’s absolutely no evidence that Paul Manafort was involved with any collusion with any government official from Russia,” Kevin Downing, another Manafort lawyer, said outside the courthouse.

Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani said after the sentencing, “I believe Manafort has been disproportionately harassed and hopefully soon there will be an investigation of the overzealous prosecutorial intimidation so it doesn’t happen again.”

Manafort worked for Trump’s campaign for five pivotal months in 2016 that included the Republican National Convention where Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, three of them as campaign chairman.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov
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