WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr will testify before the House Judiciary Committee for the first time next month, the Justice Department said Wednesday, as two of his employees testified that he has politicized the department and allowed special treatment for Roger Stone, a friend of President Donald Trump.
Aaron Zelinsky, a career Justice Department prosecutor who was part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and worked on the case against Stone, told the committee that Stone was treated differently before his sentencing because of his relationship with the president. As the hearing began, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec tweeted that Barr would accept the panel’s invitation to testify July 28.
Zelinsky, who now works in the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland, said he was told by supervisors that political considerations influenced the decision to overrule the recommendation of the trial team and propose a lighter prison sentence.
“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.
The testimony features the extraordinary spectacle of a current prosecutor castigating decisions made by the leadership of the Justice Department where he still serves. The hearing is likely to add to congressional scrutiny of Barr, who has alarmed Democrats in recent months with his efforts to scrutinize, and even undo, some of the results of Mueller’s Russia’s investigation.
The panel subpoenaed Zelinsky and John Elias, a career official in the department’s antitrust division, as part of its probe into the politicization of the department under Barr. Elias detailed antitrust investigations that he says were started over the objections of career staff — a charge the department denies — and said he asked the department’s inspector general to investigate them.
The Democratic-led panel and Barr have been feuding since shortly after he took office in early 2019, when he declined to testify about Mueller’s report. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said at the opening of the hearing that Barr is Trump’s “fixer” hand called Zelinsky and Elias “patriots.”
The testimony showed “that there is one set of rules for the president’s friends and another set of rules for the rest of us,” Nadler said.
The Democrats opened the investigation earlier this year over Barr’s handling of the Stone case but have expanded their focus to several subsequent episodes in which they believe Barr is doing Trump’s bidding. That includes the department’s efforts to dismiss the criminal case against Gen. Michael Flynn and the firing last weekend of the the top prosecutor in New York’s Southern District.
The prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, has been investigating the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Nadler said his firing is “part of a clear and dangerous pattern of conduct that began when Mr. Barr took office and continues to this day.”
Nadler had threatened to subpoena Barr’s testimony if he didn’t agree to appear. A Judiciary Committee aide said the Justice Department restarted negotiations over the hearing in the last few days after Nadler’s threat.
Zelinsky, one of four lawyers who quit the Stone case after the department overruled their sentencing recommendation, said he was only permitted by the department to discuss the Stone case at the hearing. He testified that the acting U.S. attorney at the time, Timothy Shea, was “receiving heavy pressures from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to give Stone a break.”
He did not say who was doing the pressuring but said there was “significant pressure” on line prosecutors to “obscure” the correct sentencing guidelines and “water down and in some cases outright distort” what happened at Stone’s trial and the events that resulted in his conviction.
Zelinsky said during questioning from the top Republican on the panel, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, that one of the supervisors he had talked to was J.P. Cooney, chief of the fraud and public corruption section at the U.S. attorney’s office, and that his understanding was that his supervisors had been in meetings with Shea.
Jordan and other Republicans dismissed the testimony as hearsay.
“It sounds like you heard stuff you are now bringing to this committee as fact,” Jordan said.
Justice Department leadership changed the sentencing recommendation for Stone just hours after Trump tweeted his displeasure at the recommendation of up to nine years in prison, saying it had been too harsh. Stone was sentenced Feb. 20 to serve more than three years in prison plus two years’ probation and a $20,000 fine.
Barr has said Trump’s tweet played no role in the change. He said he ordered the new filing hours earlier because he was caught off guard by the initial sentencing recommendation and believed it was excessive based on the facts of the case.
Zelinsky described having learned from the media that the Justice Department planned to overrule the trial team’s sentencing recommendation, something he said he found unusual given the department’s conventional practice of not commenting on cases.
Though the U.S. attorney’s office initially said the reports were false, the team was later told that a new sentencing memorandum would be issued that would seek a lighter punishment for Stone.
“We repeatedly asked to see that new memorandum prior to its filing. Our request was denied,” Zelinsky said. “We were not informed about the content or substance of the proposed filing, or even who was writing it. We were told that one potential draft of the filing attacked us personally.”
Zelinsky says he was also told that the acting U.S. attorney was giving Stone such unprecedented favourable treatment because he was “afraid of the president.”
Kupec said Barr had directed Shea to leave the sentencing to the discretion of the judge, who ultimately sentenced Stone to a notably shorter amount of prison time than the trial prosecutors had initially sought.
“Notably, Mr. Zelinsky, a line prosecutor, did not have any discussion with the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, or any other 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,” Kupec said in a statement.
Stone was convicted on all seven counts of an indictment that accused him of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election.
On Tuesday, Stone filed a motion asking to extend his surrender date until September because of coronavirus concerns. He is scheduled to report to a federal prison in Georgia by June 30.
—Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.