Morale will likely plummet and more employees could leave, former prosecutors say.
The Justice Department’s interference in the sentencing of President Trump’s former advisor Roger Stone was largely unprecedented and will likely dampen morale across the career workforce, former prosecutors with decades of experience said on Wednesday.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr outraged many onlookers when Justice altered the sentencing recommendation for Stone, a former Trump confidante who was found guilty last year of making false statements, witness tampering and obstructing an official proceeding in connection with the special counsel’s investigation led by Robert Mueller. Career prosecutors working on the case recommended Stone be sentenced to seven-to-nine years in prison before department officials intervened and asked for a lesser sentence. All four attorneys told the court they were withdrawing from the case in response to the interference and at least one resigned from the department altogether.
The department’s involvement followed a Trump tweet in which he called the recommendation “horrible and unfair” and a “miscarriage of justice.”
Recently retired Justice prosecutors told Government Executive there was little precedent for the department’s political involvement seemingly at the behest of the president. Justice officials often confer with prosecutors at the beginning of cases to decide what to pursue and what charges to bring, they said, but rarely do they remain involved once the case is at trial.
Michael Levy, who served at the Justice Department for 37 years including a stint as a U.S. attorney, called the events “disturbing” and noted that unlike President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, the employees involved were career officials.
“It is an attack on the career service,” Levy said. He expressed concern that a high rate of turnover at Justice would prevent the department from taking up big cases involving widespread fraud and other crimes. “If you’ve got turnover all the time you’ve got inexperienced people. If you’ve got a case building up, you’ve got no one to pick it up when people leave.”
He added some turnover among political appointees is positive, as fresh perspectives can help identify new priorities or ways of doing things. He explained the career workforce can help political appointees accomplish their goals with their vast institutional knowledge, however, and Trump and Barr’s actions could disrupt that flow of information.
“Telling career people you don’t count and you’re going to be overruled by the politicals, it’s not an incentive to stay,” Levy said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., quickly asked Justice’s inspector general to investigate wrongdoing by the Trump administration on Stone’s case. A spokesperson for the IG declined to comment on the matter.
Richard Gregorie, a former career prosecutor with more than 40 years of experience at Justice, praised the employees who stepped down after the department’s orders came down.
“God bless these guys for having the backbone to step down and tell the Department of Justice this is totally inappropriate,” said Gregorie, who served under nine presidents, including Trump. He noted disagreements between prosecutors and supervisors at some point in the case is normal, but this had fallen outside those typical boundaries. “Some decisions I haven’t been happy with, but nothing at this level. It’s unacceptable and inexcusable.”
He said he did not expect a mass exodus of employees, as most will continue to do their jobs.
“They ought to do what is right and if the time comes that DOJ won’t back them up, they should resign immediately,” he said.
Mel Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney for 37 years who most recently served as senior litigation counsel at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Milwaukee, said in his career he was “not aware of this happening in any case ever.” He expected morale to dip at the department as a result, though employees are unlikely to leave unless they are involved in a similar situation.
“When a person’s worked on a case for a year or two and they put all this time and effort into it, when this decision—not for any reason having to do with the merits of the case but because the president issued a tweet saying this is ridiculous—that is more aggravating,” Johnson said.
The former prosecutors said political supervisors sometimes review sentencing recommendations in high-profile cases, but only to ensure the attorneys are on solid legal ground. Levy suggested Trump was not outraged at the legal guidelines themselves, but instead that they were being applied to his friend.
“The job of a supervisor is sometimes to overrule a subordinate, but when it’s being done for what is clearly political reasons, that is discouraging,” Levy said. He added any good supervisor listens to dissent, and that tradition could be lost in the Justice Department.
Gregorie predicted the judge in Stone’s case may ignore the updated recommendation entirely, instead looking toward the prosecutors well-versed in the details of the case for their advice. Johnson expressed concern that some attorneys considering a federal position may now look elsewhere.
“‘If it’s going to be like this, I don’t want it,’” he speculated potential federal prosecutors may think, adding, “These jobs have always been considered desirable.”
The interference came just days after Trump dismissed both career and political officials who testified at his impeachment hearings, as well as the brother of one of those individuals.
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