WASHINGTON (CN) — Roger Stone made his latest play to avoid prison time Tuesday, just after explosive testimony from a federal prosecutor went public revealing deep and unprecedented political entanglements in the criminal case of the president’s longtime ally.
“I have never seen political influence play any role in prosecutorial decision making. With one exception: United States v. Roger Stone,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky said in written testimony released Tuesday.
Stone is set to report to prison at the end of the month but filed a motion — unopposed by the Justice Department — requesting to push the deadline off until September, citing underlying medical conditions that his attorneys claim make exposure to the novel coronavirus life-threatening.
Just hours before, the House Judiciary Committee revealed Zelinsky will testify Wednesday, one of two “whistleblowers” the panel will hear from. Currently a prosecutor in the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, Zelinsky was one of four prosecutors who stepped down from the Stone case over internal pressure to recommend a lighter sentence.
The prosecutor plans to testify that he repeatedly heard that the defendant — a longtime GOP consultant and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” — received differential treatment based on his relationship with Trump.
“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,” Zelinsky said in written 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.’”
The scathing accounts come as part of an investigation by Democrats into political interference by the president and Attorney General William Barr in criminal prosecutions brought by former special counsel Robert Mueller. The House plans to question Zelinsky on a panel of other current and former Justice Department officials on Capitol Hill.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Stone to just over three years in prison after he was convicted on seven criminal counts last year, including lying to Congress and witness tampering.
Stone has appealed his sentence and conviction to the D.C. Circuit where it is currently in the briefing stages.
Zelinsky makes clear in his testimony that his concern is with the process, and not the sentence passed down in February.
“It pains me to describe these events,” his written testimony states. “But as Judge Jackson said in this case, the truth still matters. And so I am here today to tell you the truth.”
That indelible phrase — “truth still matters” — first uttered by the prosecution at closing arguments in November, then invoked by the judge at Stone’s sentencing hearing, has defined the case as it weaves through what many believe to be judicial stumbling blocks positioned by the defendant as he awaits a pardon from Trump.
“The truth still exists. The truth still matters,” Jackson said from the bench in February. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t, his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the very foundation of our democracy.”
Zelinsky details the internal disputes over the recommended sentencing for Stone, including repeated denied requests to see the edited recommendation and information that one potential draft by an unknown author attacked the four career prosecutors personally.
“That evening, the department filed a new memorandum seeking a substantially lower sentence for Stone. No line AUSA signed the filing—which is also something that is virtually unprecedented,” he says in written testimony.
The final recommendation dropped the initial proposal for up to nine years imprisonment for Stone to a lower calculation of three to four years based on his conduct and conviction.
Zelinsky notes that Jackson made clear that the initial proposal by career prosecutors was without error.
“It was true to the record. It was in accordance with the law and with DOJ policy, and it was submitted with the same level of evenhanded judgment and professionalism they exhibited throughout the trial,” Jackson said from the bench in February.
Recounting how an unnamed supervisor recognized that the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney bowing to political pressure was unethical, Zelinsky describes in detail how the official advised the prosecuting team on the case.
“However, we were instructed that we should go along with the U.S. Attorney’s instructions, because this case was ‘not the hill worth dying on’ and that we could ‘lose our jobs’ if we did not toe the line,” he says in written testimony. “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.”