The prosecutor, Aaron Zelinsky, told the House Judiciary Committee in June that he felt politics influenced the prison sentence that was recommended for Stone, who was convicted of lying to lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. After Zelinsky and other career prosecutors recommended that Stone face seven to nine years in prison, and Trump angrily tweeted about the case, Attorney General William P. Barr intervened and had the Justice Department propose a lighter punishment.
Barr’s move drew widespread criticism and prompted all four career prosecutors to quit the case. Zelinksy’s allegation that the action was motivated by politics amplified the controversy, though some of his supervisors soon privately reported that they felt he had not accurately described what they conveyed, said the people familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal Justice Department deliberations.
The Justice Department inspector general’s office is now reviewing the matter, and has contacted at least one of the prosecutors assigned to the case.
Robert Litt, a lawyer for Zelinsky, said in an email, “He stands by his testimony and the Mueller report.”
Although the extent of the dispute is unknown, the supervisors’ account is notable because Zelinsky conceded to lawmakers that he did not discuss the Stone case directly with Barr, Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen or then-acting U.S. attorney Tim Shea. Rather, he said, it was his supervisors who explained why the department was “treating Roger Stone differently from everyone else.”
“And what I heard repeatedly was that this leniency was happening because of Stone’s relationship to the president; that the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice, and that his instructions to us were based on political considerations,” Zelinsky testified. “And I was told that the acting U.S. attorney was giving Stone a break because he was afraid of the president.”
Pressed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a close ally of the president, to identify which supervisors he had spoken with, Zelinsky specifically mentioned fraud chief J.P. Cooney, saying he was the person who said that Shea was “afraid of the president” and that the motivation for altering the career prosecutors’ recommendation was political.
Zelinsky testified that the U.S. attorney’s first assistant, whom he later identified as Alessio Evangelista, and criminal chief, whom he did not identify, were also “involved in these discussions to my knowledge,” and it was his “understanding” that one or more of them had talked to Barr, Rosen or Shea. Zelinsky later clarified, though, that he “did not have any conversations with Mr. Evangelista following the filing of our memo” recommending Stone’s prison sentence.
Cooney referred questions to the U.S. attorney’s press office in Washington, which declined to comment. Evangelista did not return messages.
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, confirmed earlier this month that the Justice Department’s inspector general had launched a review of how officials handled Stone’s case, though it was unclear what, precisely, prompted that inquiry and whether its focus was political pressure surrounding sentencing recommendation, Zelinsky’s testimony or other matters.
“We welcome the review,” Kupec said.
A spokeswoman for the inspector general declined to comment.
Shea, who is now the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Stone’s case was cultivated by Mueller’s team as part of its two-year investigation of Russia’s election interference and whether any of Trump’s associates had conspired in that effort. It was transferred to the U.S. attorney in D.C. when the special counsel’s office was shuttered last year.
After Barr’s intervention, Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and those on the House Judiciary Committee, had called on the Justice Department inspector general to probe what they viewed as inappropriate political influence in a case involving a friend of the president. When the Justice Department signaled it planned to override career prosecutors’ recommendation for Stone’s sentence, all four assigned to the matter — Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed, Michael Marando and Zelinsky — quit the case, with Kravis leaving government entirely.
Litt declined to say if Zelinsky, who returned to his position with the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland, had been approached by the inspector general. Steven M. Witzel, a lawyer for Marando, confirmed Marando had been approached by the inspector general’s office but declined to comment further. Marando left the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. for a job at Facebook over the summer. Kravis declined to comment. Jed, who still works for the department, did not return a message seeking comment.
A federal judge ultimately sentenced Stone to 40 months in prison, though Trump later commuted that term. In an email, Stone said he would file formal complaints with the Justice Department against the four prosecutors who secured his conviction. Barr has defended his intervention in the matter and asserted it was unconnected to Trump’s tweet. Like Zelinsky, Kravis has criticized the Justice Department’s handling of the case, asserting that career prosecutors were undercut to help protect a friend of the president.
“Prosecutors must make decisions based on facts and law, not on the defendant’s political connections,” Kravis wrote in a May Washington Post column. “When the department takes steps that it would never take in any other case to protect an ally of the president, it betrays this principle.”
In a scathing speech earlier this month, Barr delivered a critique of his own Justice Department, insisting on his absolute authority as attorney general to overrule career staffers, who he accused of injecting themselves into politics.
Julie Tate and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.