US Justice officials faced 'heavy pressure' in Roger Stone case

Former Department of Justice official to tell Congress that prosecutors faced improper political interference.

    Roger Stone sits in a vehicle while leaving federal court Washington, DC after being found guilty at his trial in in federal court. [File: Julio Cortez/AP Photo]
    Roger Stone sits in a vehicle while leaving federal court Washington, DC after being found guilty at his trial in in federal court. [File: Julio Cortez/AP Photo]

    The federal office that led the prosecution of President Donald Trump's friend Roger Stone received "heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice" to ease its sentencing recommendation, career prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky plans to tell Congress, according to his prepared remarks.

    Zelinsky, who withdrew from the Roger Stone case in protest, will testify on Wednesday before the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives Judiciary Committee about political pressures that he said the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia faced.

    He will add that Tim Shea, the acting US attorney at the time - who was appointed by Attorney General William Barr, ultimately caved to the pressure because he was "afraid of the President".

    Zelinsky's testimony never explicitly said who pressured Shea, but he said he was told that Shea "was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break".

    "I was explicitly told that the motivation for changing the sentencing memo was political, and because the US Attorney was 'afraid of the President'," Zelinsky said.

    U.S. President Trump presents Public Safety Medals of Valor to officers at the White House in Washington
    US Attorney General William Barr at a meeting at White House in Washington, DC. Barr is accused of pressuring prosecutors to reduce the sentence of Trump confidante Roger Stone. [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

    The Justice Department had no immediate comment on his testimony.

    Republicans are expected to push back on his testimony, saying he is confusing politicisation with policy disagreements.

    Zelinsky said career prosecutors never got to see the draft of the revised memo, which Shea filed after Trump blasted the office on Twitter for its original recommendation of a seven-to-nine-year term.

    The Republican president called the recommendation "horrible" and a "miscarriage of justice". Stone's friendship with Trump dates back decades.

    Stone, 67, who was convicted of obstruction, witness tampering and lying to Congress during its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, is due to report to prison later this month to begin serving his three years-and-four-month sentence. He is seeking an extension due to concerns about contracting COVID-19.

    Wednesday's hearing will mark the first time that Zelinsky will publicly discuss the drama that ensued behind the scenes with the case, in what critics see as part of a broader pattern of improper political interference by the attorney general in the criminal justice system.

    Zelinsky will testify alongside John Elias, a career Justice Department antitrust lawyer who served as the division's chief of staff and plans to talk about the politicisation of antitrust probes into cannabis companies and the automotive sector, according to his prepared remarks.

    The hearing comes just after Barr abruptly moved, without any explanation, to remove Manhattan's top federal prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, whose office has been investigating Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani.

    Barr also moved last month to dismiss the criminal case against Trump's former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, although Flynn had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

    Democrats have said those moves by Barr raise questions about whether he is acting more like Trump's personal lawyer, and not serving the public interest.

    In his prepared testimony, Elias plans to tell legislators that "cannabis investigations accounted for five of the eight active merger investigations" in an office with a broad portfolio.

    He also said an antitrust probe of the four carmakers began the day after Trump tweeted on August 21 that he was angered that the companies were negotiating with California about air quality emissions standards.

    The investigation had the effect of deterring other carmakers from joining the voluntary California agreements.

    The Justice Department did not have any immediate comment on the antitrust testimony.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency