US Attorney General to be grilled over 'inappropriate politicisation' of Justice Department

24 June 2020, 20:52

US attorney general William Barr
US attorney general William Barr. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

US attorney general William Barr has said he will testify before Congress for the first time as it examines whether he has inappropriately politicised the Justice Department.

One of Mr Barr's federal prosecutors has told the House Judiciary Committee that Roger Stone, a close ally of Donald Trump, was given special treatment ahead of his sentencing because of his relationship with the president.

The hearing is likely to add to scrutiny of Mr Barr, who has alarmed Democrats in recent months with his efforts to scrutinise, and even undo, some of the results of Mr Mueller's Russia's investigation.

As the hearing began, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec tweeted that Mr Barr would accept the panel's invitation to give evidence on July 28.

Aaron Zelinsky, a career Justice Department prosecutor who was part of special counsel Robert Mueller's team and worked on the case against Stone, 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.

Mr Zelinsky now works in the US attorney's office in Maryland, and his evidence features the spectacle of a current prosecutor castigating decisions made by the leadership of the Justice Department where he still serves.

Mr Zelinsky said in his evidence: "What I heard - repeatedly - was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president."

The panel subpoenaed Mr Zelinksy and John Elias, a career official in the department's antitrust division, as part of its probe into the politicisation of the department under Mr Barr.

Aaron Zelinsky appeared via videolink
Aaron Zelinsky appeared via videolink. Picture: PA

The Democratic-led panel and Mr Barr have been feuding since shortly after he took office in early 2019, when he declined to give evidence about Mr Mueller's report.

The Democrats launched the investigation earlier this year over Mr Barr's handling of the Stone case but have expanded their focus to several subsequent episodes in which they believe Mr Barr is doing Mr Trump's bidding.

That includes the department's efforts to dismiss the criminal case against General 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 lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

The hearing is in relation to Roger Stone, a close ally of Donald Trump
The hearing is in relation to Roger Stone, a close ally of Donald Trump. Picture: PA

Zelinsky, one of four lawyers who quit the Stone case after the department overruled their sentencing recommendation, said the acting US 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 does not say who was doing the pressuring, but says 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.

Before Stone's sentencing on February 20, Justice Department leadership changed the sentencing recommendation just hours after Mr Trump tweeted his displeasure at the recommendation of up to nine years in prison, saying it had been too harsh. Stone was later sentenced to serve more than three years in prison plus two years' probation and a 20,000 dollar fine.

Mr Barr has said Mr Trump's tweet played no role in the change. He said he ordered the new filing hours before the president's tweet because he was caught off guard by the initial sentencing recommendation and believed it was excessive based on the facts of the case.