Chicago’s former top federal prosecutor on Wednesday harshly condemned his former employer, the U.S. Justice Department, after it bowed to President Donald Trump and relaxed sentencing recommendations for the president’s friend, Roger Stone.
Zachary Fardon, who served as U.S. attorney in Chicago between 2013 and 2017, told WBEZ he had never seen anything like what unfolded Tuesday in Stone’s case but predicted the precedent would not undercut efforts by federal prosecutors in Chicago to fight political corruption.
Four veteran federal prosecutors either quit Stone’s case or resigned altogether in protest after the Justice Department overruled the prison term they proposed for Stone, which could have been up to nine years. The move came after Trump tweeted his outrage over their initial recommendation.
“It is deeply troubling to me,” said Fardon, who helped prosecute former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and oversaw the prosecution of former U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
“The fact that all of the prosecutors on the case who had been assigned to the case, had long been working the case, all quit that same day is startling and very telling. That kind of political pressure by DOJ is erosive and corrosive to its history and its culture,” Fardon said.
Asked how he would have handled things if he were prosecuting Stone’s case, Fardon said, “Exactly what those prosecutors did yesterday, which is remove myself.
“In 30 years of practice and over a dozen years as a federal prosecutor, I never once even had to think about doing that,” Fardon said. “I don’t know of any other case or context where assistant U.S. attorneys had to do that, and it happened yesterday, which is why it’s such a significant event.”
Trump tweeted that the prosecutors who convinced jurors to convict Stone of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the 2016 Trump campaign coordinated with Russia were seeking a “ridiculous” prison sentence of up to nine years for the former Trump campaign aide.
“Whatever the president chooses to tweet or not tweet should not matter when it comes to how DOJ is going to comport itself. And [Tuesday], by all appearances, it did, and that’s why I think it has to be called out,” Fardon said.
The unprecedented action of the Justice Department comes as federal agents in Chicago have been embarking on a sprawling corruption probe that has yielded few criminal charges so far but has ensnared several Illinois lobbyists and elected officials.
“I think we are in unchartered waters on this one,” former FBI Agent-in-Charge Robert Grant told WBEZ in reference to the resignations in Stone’s case.
Grant led the FBI's Chicago office in the prosecution of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who continues to sit in prison even though Trump has repeatedly publicly toyed with the idea of freeing Blagojevich early.
Grant pointed out that the judge overseeing the sentencing process could still give Stone a harsh prison sentence.
“What we did and what federal prosecutors all over the country do are they’re trying to do justice, they’re trying to do the right thing. And that should not and hasn’t in the past been dependent on who’s sitting in the White House,” said Eric Sussman, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Chicago’s Reed Smith law office.
Sussman led the prosecution against Conrad Black, who once ran the parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times. Trump pardoned Black last year.
But Sussman has a hard time picturing a similar scenario that played out with Stone happening in the corruption probe that’s been dominating Springfield.
The difference, he said, is John Lausch, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
“I would expect that to the extent that John Lausch was overruled in the way those prosecutors were overruled and believed he was being asked to do something that was not right, I would expect John Lausch to resign in the same way those prosecutors did in Washington,” Sussman said.
He said prosecutors working on the corruption case are likely troubled seeing the Stone prosecution play out in the way it has, but should also feel “heartened to know that your U.S. attorney would not allow something like that to happen.”
Fardon, who regards himself as politically independent, echoed that sentiment.
“This office is extraordinarily strong unto itself when it comes to integrity, culture, independence. I think over time, can that get chipped away if you have a recurrence of the kinds of things that DOJ did yesterday ... without recourse, without people speaking out, without people taking action responsive to that? It can,” Fardon said.
“But I think for now, I have every confidence this office will carry on doing its job exactly how it’s been doing for decades now, which is what the public should want and hope for,” Fardon said.