A prosecutor who helped win the conviction of President Donald Trump's friend Roger Stone told Congress on Wednesday that the "highest levels" of the Department of Justice pressured officials "to cut Stone a break."
Aaron Zelinsky, one of four prosecutors who withdrew from the case after the department stepped in to lower Stone's recommended prison sentence, testified before the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee in a hearing on politicization of the DOJ under Attorney General William Barr.
The panel's 12 p.m. ET hearing came as Barr has faced heavy criticism for his handling of high-profile cases involving matters directly related to Trump. Critics have accused Barr of undermining the independence of the Justice Department by acting in ways that benefit Trump politically.
Barr was not attending Wednesday's hearing. But Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec tweeted later Wednesday that the attorney general has accepted an invitation to appear before the House panel for a "general oversight hearing" on July 28.
Shortly before the start of the hearing, a federal appeals court ordered a lower-court judge to dismiss the criminal case against Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump's first national security advisor. The Justice Department had filed a motion seeking to dismiss the case, and Flynn's lawyers argued that Judge Emmet Sullivan did not promptly grant the request.
In his prepared opening statement, Zelinsky said he personally saw the department "exerting significant pressure" on prosecutors "to water down and in some cases outright distort" the events of Stone's trial and his criminal conduct.
"What I heard — repeatedly — was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president," Zelinsky said.
Stone, 67, was convicted last November of lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election and for pressuring an associate, Randy Credico, to endorse his lies. During the campaign, WikiLeaks released emails stolen by Russian agents from the chief of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign and from the Democratic National Committee.
In February, the attorneys prosecuting Stone's case recommended a severe sentence of up to nine years in prison for Stone, a self-described political trickster and longtime confidant of Trump.
The president had weighed in on Twitter shortly after the recommendation, calling it "disgraceful!"
Prosecutors said at the time that their proposed sentence was in line with federal sentencing guidelines, which are calculated according to a formula that takes into account the severity of the crime, the type of conduct involved, and a defendant's prior criminal history.
A day after the original proposed sentence was filed, Timothy Shea — the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — requested a substantially lower prison term. Zelinsky said he was told that Shea "was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break."
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Stone on Feb. 20 to 40 months in prison. In April, Jackson denied Stone's request for a new trial. Stone appealed his conviction and sentence, and has asked a federal court to delay his June 30 prison surrender date, citing concerns for his health due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Zelinsky said in his opening statement that he "was explicitly told" that the pressure to change Stone's sentencing was coming "because the U.S. attorney was 'afraid of the president.'"
"When I learned that the department was going to issue a new sentencing memo, I made the difficult decision to resign from the case and my temporary appointment in the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. rather than be associated with the Department of Justice's actions at sentencing," Zelinsky said. "I returned to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland, where I work today."