President Trump expressed sympathy for Paul Manafort Friday morning, after his convicted former campaign chairman received a four-year prison sentence.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort,” Trump said. “It’s been a very, very tough time for him.”
Outside the White House, however, the reaction was much different. Former prosecutors and sentencing experts expressed surprise, even shock, at Judge T.S. Ellis’ dramatic departure from the guidelines, which suggested Manafort receive between 19 and 24 years for a bevy of financial crimes, including hiding $55 million in secret overseas accounts and failing to pay $6 million in taxes. Despite the shock and awe, gaps between the guidelines and the reality for economic crimes aren’t uncommon.
Manafort’s sentence points to the gulf between how white collar crimes and street-level offenses — especially small-time drug crimes — are handled in the U.S. justice system. If Manafort had been busted trying to sell an ounce of crack, he would have faced a mandatory federal five-year sentence — a full year more than he’ll serve.
“I think this sentence was absurdly low,” said Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “This sentence is also bad for the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, because it suggests that the wealthy and the powerful can get off easy.”
Streets vs. suites
Manafort is hardly the first white collar criminal to get a lighter sentence than a drug dealer. Just last year, the same judge who gave Manafort four years on Thursday night handed another man 40 years for dealing methamphetamine.
In that case, Judge Ellis even called his own sentence for 37-year-old Frederick Turner, a first-time offender, “excessive” — the same word he applied to Manafort’s guidelines. But Ellis also said his hands were tied because of the mandatory minimum sentencing rules for drug offenses.
“I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law,” Ellis said at the time.
“Of course, if I thought it was blatantly immoral, I would resign,” he said. “It’s wrong, but it’s not immoral.”
People convicted of tax fraud in 2017, for a median tax loss of $278,000, got an average of 17 months in prison, according to the most recent data available. The same year, the average sentence for trafficking marijuana (at a ballpark weight of 200 pounds) was 27 months.
The average sentence for money laundering (median amount: $200,000) was 67 months, whereas the average sentence for trafficking crack cocaine — with a typical volume between 28 and 112 grams — was 80 months.
As of 2016, a full 49 percent of all federal inmates were drug offenders, and almost three-quarters of those were convicted of an offense that carried a mandatory minimum penalty.
"All the more reason for prosecutors not to be forced to seek five years for a kid selling 28 grams of crack."
In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the federal sentencing statute that required district judges to impose a sentence within the federal guideline range. The ruling gave judges more freedom and ultimately resulted in lower sentences for many white collar crimes out of a general sense — whether justified or not — that the guidelines may be too harsh, according to Doug Berman, a professor of criminal law and expert on sentencing at Ohio State University.
But other crimes, especially federal narcotics offenses, still come with stiff minimum sentences, including a minimum of five years for offenses involving 28 grams of crack, 5 grams of pure meth, or 100 grams of heroin. A minimum of 10 years is required for offenses involving 280 grams of crack, 50 grams of pure meth, or a kilogram of heroin.
The gap between Manafort’s sentence and many drug offenders’ may then suggest that drug-related mandatory minimums in the U.S. are too long, rather than that Manafort’s sentence was too short.
“To me, the fact that Manafort got 47 months for what he did is just all the more reason for prosecutors not to be forced to seek five years for a kid selling 28 grams of crack,” Berman said.
Several legal experts also cautioned that, by itself, Manafort’s sentence shouldn’t be seen as a walk in the park — especially not for a man turning 70 in April. Manafort has already spent about nine months in solitary confinement since his bail was revoked last June. His lawyers have said he suffers from gout and depression.
“A four-year sentence is, as an absolute matter, a long time to spend in jail,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor based in New York. “Those who believe it is a short sentence should ask themselves to imagine four years in jail.”
A "blameless life"
Judge Ellis explained his decision on Thursday to the packed courthouse in Alexandria by saying he believed Manafort had “lived an otherwise blameless life.” That remark raised eyebrows among those who have followed the life-long political consultant’s career closely.
Manafort’s role in politics has been controversial for decades. In the 1980s, he famously admitted to a Congressional committee on national television that his work in Washington, which blended campaign consulting with lobbying for monied interests, could be considered “influence peddling.”
He then went on to consult for foreign strongmen with dubious reputations, including Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko — who reportedly stole almost half of the $12 billion worth of aid that his impoverished country received from the IMF — and the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos — whose regime was accused of widespread torture and extrajudicial killings.
But the charges Manafort was convicted on related to the millions he earned consulting for the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych — a man widely seen as aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those charges largely preceded his work for the Trump campaign in 2016.
Manafort was paid more than $55 million for coaching Yanukovych on how to win office and wield power, and hid his money his from U.S. authorities in a network of offshore accounts. Manafort failed to pay more than $6 million in taxes on his earnings, and when his funds eventually ran low, he borrowed $25 million from American banks by lying to them, prosecutors said.
“Manafort acted for more than a decade as if he were above the law,” prosecutors wrote in a memo to the judge before sentencing.
The discrepancy between Manafort’s sentence and those of drug offenders wasn’t lost on high-profile Democrats, who took to Twitter to highlight how the justice system treats for the rich and powerful compared to how it treats the downtrodden.
Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Manafort’s sentence reveals how “in our current broken system, ‘justice’ isn’t blind. It’s bought.”
Democratic senator from Massachusetts and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren pointed to the case of Fate Winslow, a 41-year-old homeless man who received a life sentence in Louisiana for a small-time marijuana charge.
And Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and a former prosecutor, also criticized the sentence.
Manafort must still be sentenced in another court in Washington D.C. next week, where he faces up to 10 more years over two counts of conspiracy related to his unregistered lobbying on behalf of Ukraine and witness tampering. The judge in that case, Amy Berman Jackson, has taken a more critical tone of Manafort than her colleague in Virginia, Judge Ellis.
“Manafort was certainly handed a gift in Virginia,” said Seth Waxman, a former prosecutor based in Washington, D.C. “The question now is how the sentence in D.C. will go?”
Waxman said that he expects a longer sentence in Washington than in Virginia, and that the judge would probably rule that it has to be served back-to-back, rather than at the same time.
The possible resulting sentence might mean Manafort spends a decade in jail, Waxman said.
“A combined 10 years in jail might not be a straight death sentence, but it’s surely very significant,” Waxman said.
Cover image: This 1986 file photo shows a smokable, concentrated form of cocaine in a small plastic container. (AP Photo)