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Manafort sentence highlights unequal treatment of poor, minority defendants

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Image: Paul Manafort arrives for a court hearing
Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at US District Court on June 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. -
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WASHINGTON — In January, a South Dakota businessman was sentenced for his role in helping people cheat on their taxes. The total loss to the government, according to court documents, was about $860,000 over three years.

He got nine years in federal prison.

Paul Manafort, by contrast, got just under four years behind bars after admitting to cheating the federal government out of some $6 million in tax revenue over a decade while also defrauding banks and hiding foreign accounts. He faces sentencing in a separate case in Washington, D.C., next week.

The sentencehanded down Thursday by Judge T.S. Ellis—a sharp downward departure from guidelines that called for up to 24 years—is being viewed by legal experts as a glaring example of unusual treatment. It highlights the disparate punishments meted out to poor defendants of color, but it's also an outlier even by the standards of similar white collar schemes, experts say.

"It's a shockingly low sentence," said Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in fraud cases. "The conduct here was so extensive and long lasting. I think there are white collar defendants all around the country saying. 'What the hell, why couldn't I get a deal like that?'"

To be sure, a four year sentence is not unusually light in the context of typical bank and tax fraud cases. In fact, the average sentence for tax fraud in 2017 was 31 months, and 23 months for fraud on a financial institution, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

But Manafort's case is anything but typical, legal experts say, which is why the sentencing guidelines were so high.

First, Manafort's conduct led to several enhancements in the sentencing guidelines because it was a sophisticated scheme that he led over many years. The guidelines also took into account the fact that he had no previous criminal convictions.

Second, Manafort never accepted responsibility. He made a statement to the judge before sentencing in which he did not apologize, express remorse, or speak in any detail about his own actions, which experts say is extremely unusual for a sophisticated white collar defendant with expensive lawyers.

"That was unprecedented, " said Joyce Vance, a former U.S. Attorney in Alabama. "Most white collar defendants, whether or not they are actually repentant, are typically smart enough to tell the court how sorry they are."

Judge Ellis even told Manafort before passing sentence that he "was surprised I did not hear you express regret."

But Ellis went on to say that lack of expression of remorse made no difference in the sentence he was about to hand down.

The judge also cited what he called Manafort's "otherwise blameless life," a statement that has come in for ridicule. Manafort was known for representing unsavory foreign figures—including Jonas Savimbi of Angola and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines—long before the conduct at issue in his trial. One group dubbed him part of the "Torturer's Lobby."

Ellis noted that "the law is very clear that in sentencing, a court must consider the entire individual, not just the individual and his crime-committing activities."

But it's not clear Ellis did that. He didn't appear to take into account what prosecutors presented to him in the government's sentencing memo about Manafort's lies to a grand jury, the FBI and federal prosecutors.

In their pre-sentencing memo, Manafort's lawyers pointed to cases in which similar defendants were treated with leniency. A former business professor at the University of Rochester, convicted of hiding over $200 million in offshore accounts resulting in an approximate tax loss of $18 million, got seven months' in prison—from Ellis—in 2017.

But special counsel Robert Mueller's office said in its own sentencing memo that no case really compared.

"These were not short-lived schemes," Mueller's office wrote. "Manafort's crimes were the product of his planning and premeditation over many years, and a result of his direct and willful conduct. Manafort's tax crimes by any account were serious, and more serious than most given the amount of money at issue and the fact that his failure to pay the taxes owed was not caused by any necessity but simple greed. Manafort had ample funds to cover these tax payments. He simply chose not to comply with laws that would reduce his wealth."

Judge Ellis called the Manafort sentencing guidelines of 19 to 24 years "excessive" and "way out of whack."

Reacting to the news, defense lawyers contrasted Manafort's sentence with those of their own less privileged clients. And legal experts saw a larger theme of injustice.

"For context on Manafort's 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room," tweeted Scott Hechinger, a federal public defender in Brooklyn.

"Paul Manafort's lenient 4-year sentence — far below the recommended 20 years despite extensive felonies and post-conviction obstruction — is a reminder of the blatant inequities in our justice system that we all know about, because they reoccur every week in courts across America," said Ari Melber, a legal analyst for NBC News, in a tweet that went viral.

All eyes will now be on Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C, who can sentence Manafort to as many as 10 additional years—and can choose to have him serve it after he finishes serving the sentence Ellis gave him.

Toward the end of the sentencing hearing, one of Manafort's lawyers asked Judge Ellis whether he could order that his sentence be served at the same time as the one in DC.

"I don't believe I can," he replied. "I think it is entirely up to her whether any sentence she imposes is to run concurrent to this sentence. It's up to her."