WASHINGTON — The Justice Department inspector general’s office has begun investigating the circumstances surrounding the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime friend of President Donald Trump’s, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The investigation is focused on events in February, according to the two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Stone’s prosecutors have said that is when they were told to seek a lighter sentence than they had previously considered.
Attorney General William Barr ultimately intervened to override the prosecutors’ recommendation of seven to nine years and to ask for a lighter sentence. All four prosecutors quit the case as a result.
One of the prosecutors, Aaron Zelinsky, testified before Congress in June that he was told by the office of the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., to recommend a lighter sentence than he otherwise would have because of Stone’s close personal relationship with Trump.
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Zelinsky said the U.S. attorney at the time, Timothy Shea, was “receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break, and that the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing instructions to us were based on political considerations.”
The career prosecutors had recommended the longer sentence in accordance with a 2017 policy put forth by Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, which requires prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence called for under the guidelines unless there are significant mitigating circumstances.
A source familiar with the matter said comments Zelinsky made during his testimony triggered the inspector general’s office to open an investigation. It is not known how far the office has proceeded in its investigation, whom it has interviewed or whether it has found any evidence of wrongdoing.
A federal jury convicted Stone of seven felonies after a trial in which prosecutors accused him of lying to Congress and intimidating a witness. They said he was trying to protect Trump by misleading a congressional investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
A spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which Shea now runs, declined to comment. The U.S. attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the inspector general said the office does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.
On July 10, Trump commuted Stone’s sentence to ensure that he would not serve the 40-month prison term handed down by the court.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on July 28, Barr defended his involvement in the sentencing. He said Stone’s age, 67, made it unfair for him to be sentenced for so long for a nonviolent crime.
“I agree the president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people,” Barr said.
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The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility began an inquiry into what happened around the time of Stone’s sentencing, including whether there were leaks to the media, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
But the recent involvement of the department’s inspector general carries additional weight, because the inspector general’s office is independent, and it is required to report to Congress and to post findings of misconduct publicly. If it is warranted, the inspector general can refer a case to a U.S. attorney’s office for prosecution.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.