WASHINGTON — The judge in one of Paul Manafort’s criminal cases threw a wrench Thursday into special counsel Robert Mueller’s plans for the former Trump campaign chairman’s cooperation.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said in a new order that Manafort’s plea deal cut last month set a timeline that is “highly unusual” compared with how he normally handles cases of government cooperators. Ellis set a hearing for next week that would move ahead with both Manafort’s sentencing and the government’s decision whether to retry Manafort on numerous felony counts on which jurors deadlocked.
The move was the latest by Ellis that could rankle prosecutors who recently gained Manafort as a key cooperator in the investigation into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with associates of President Donald Trump. During Manafort’s weekslong trial over the summer, Ellis made a point of hurrying prosecutors and routinely threw them off balance with comments about their facial expressions, eye contact, trial strategy and their requests to introduce certain pieces of evidence that he found unnecessary.
It’s unclear how much of an impact Ellis’ order will ultimately have on Manafort’s sentence, but it disrupts a carefully constructed plea deal.
Ellis, whose remarks during the trial in some cases led him to make corrective instructions to the jury, was also a stickler for the local rules of the Eastern District of Virginia where he presides. In his order Thursday, Ellis emphasized that Manafort’s plea agreement entered into last month in a separate federal court in Washington didn’t adhere to the usual schedule in his court.
The plea deal deferred Manafort’s sentencing until after he concludes his cooperation with the special counsel’s office. It also pushed off the government’s decision on whether to retry him on 10 counts that Virginia jurors couldn’t agree on. Jurors convicted Manafort on eight other counts of filing false tax returns, failing to report foreign bank accounts to the IRS and bank fraud related to his funding a lavish lifestyle with millions of dollars he hid from the IRS mostly in offshore accounts.
But Ellis writes in his order that he won’t be bound by that agreement.
“In this District, the government’s decision to re-try a defendant on deadlocked counts is always made in a timely manner and sentencing occurs within two to no more than four months from entry of a guilty plea or receipt of a jury verdict,” Ellis wrote, noting that this case “appears to be no different from any other.”
Now the judge’s plan could result in Manafort receiving a higher prison sentence at first and then having to rely on the government to file a motion later to reduce it if they feel it’s warranted. For the prosecution, Ellis also would remove a piece of leverage — the decision to retry the deadlocked counts — that the plea deal allowed them to hold over Manafort while he cooperated.
Peter Carr, spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined comment, as did Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni.
In a filing ahead of his Virginia trial, prosecutors noted that under federal sentencing guidelines Manafort faced roughly seven years to 10 years in prison on the tax counts alone.
Manafort will be sentenced separately in the District of Columbia case, which also stemmed from Manafort’s work as an unregistered foreign agent that he carried out for the government of Ukraine and other Ukrainian interests. That work was the source of the millions of dollars he hid from the U.S. government.
In that case, Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice related to witness tampering. Those charges carry prison sentences capped at five years.
Manafort’s co-defendant, Rick Gates, is also awaiting sentencing. On Thursday, his attorney, Thomas Green, asked in a new filing for Gates to be let off GPS monitoring. Green said his client has been a “model cooperating witness” and his sessions with federal investigators have been “numerous” and “continue to this day.”
By CHAD DAY, Associated Press