Paul Manafort case: Virginia judge calls plea deal ‘highly unusual’
The federal judge who oversaw Paul Manafort’s financial fraud trial earlier this summer expressed skepticism on Thursday about the former Trump campaign chairman’s plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, calling it “highly unusual.”
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III ordered Manafort, his attorneys and Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors to return to his Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom next Friday to resolve the matter and set a sentencing date.
At issue is the plea agreement Manafort reached last month. The agreement stipulates that the government will only drop the deadlocked charges against Manafort after he has finished cooperating with the special counsel investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
The deal spares Manafort a second criminal trial in Washington, D.C., where he was accused of making false statements to investigators and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Under the agreement, Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction charges and promised to “cooperate fully and truthfully” with Mr. Mueller’s team. In exchange, Mr. Mueller would drop other charges lodged against the longtime political operative in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Mueller’s team also agreed to dismiss 10 bank and tax fraud charges the Virginia jury was unable to reach a verdict. But only after his cooperation with the special counsel’s office is complete.
Judge Ellis expressed surprise over the plea agreement in his order Thursday.
“This would be highly unusual,” Judge Ellis wrote. “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.”
The judge said that if Manafort is cooperating with the special counsel team ahead of sentencing, the special counsel must file court documents proving he is giving “substantial assistance,” earning him a lighter sentence.
“This case appears to be no different than any other case in which defendant is cooperating and that cooperation is expected to extend beyond a scheduled sentencing date,” Judge Ellis wrote.
The order likely won’t scuttle Manafort’s plea agreement, but it could require the special counsel to show just how much information he has provided.