June 24 (UPI) — Aaron Zelinsky, one of the federal prosecutors who tried political strategist Roger Stone, told a House Committee on Wednesday that Stone was offered of a lighter sentence because of his relationship with President Donald Trump.
Appearing via a video link, Zelinsky also said he other prosecutors on the case were threatened with firing for resisting demands to reduce their sentencing recommendation for Stone.
“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 said.
Stone’s sentence was far lighter than the seven to nine years Zelinsky and the others had recommended.
Not long after making that recommendation to the judge, following a public complaint from Trump that Stone was being treated unfairly, the Justice Department and Attorney General William Barr asked for a lesser sentence.
Zelinsky and the other three prosecutors subsequently quit the case and two resigned entirely from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.
Democratic lawmakers want to know if the department waded into the case as a favor to Trump. Stone is scheduled to begin serving a 40-month prison sentence this month.
The raucous hearing began with scathing criticism of Barr by the panel’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who referenced Barr’s role in last week’s firing of Geoffrey Berman as the top federal prosecutor in New York.
Berman was overseeing several sensitive investigations involving people close to Trump and initially refused to leave his post.
“The effort to remove Mr. Berman is part of a clear and dangerous pattern of conduct that began when Mr. Barr took office and continues to this day,” Nadler said, calling the attorney general “the president’s fixer. He has shown us that there is one set of rules for the president’s friends and another set of rules for the rest of us.”
Ranking Republican member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, defended the Barr in his opening remarks, saying, “The Barr Justice Department is about correcting injustice. They’re not political, they’re just right.”
As the hearing began, the Justice Department confirmed Barr will testify before the judiciary committee next month about Berman’s firing.
“The attorney general has accepted an invitation to appear before the House judiciary committee for a general oversight hearing on July 28,” department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec tweeted.
Wednesday’s hearing was repeatedly interrupted by partisan outbursts and loud criticisms of Nadler from Republican members.
House Democrats have presented Zelinsky as a whistle-blower receiving protections for sharing information with Congress while acting as civil servants.
Stone was convicted of charges that arose from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The charges included lying to Congress, witness tampering and interfering in the House’s inquiry. Congressional investigators had searched for any potential ties between the Trump campaign and operators in Moscow.
A group of more than 1,100 former Justice Department officials later called on Barr to resign for interfering in “the fair administration of justice.”