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Paul Manafort: Beneficiary of America’s Sentencing Gap

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort would serve just under four years for two counts of financial fraud, a significantly lower bid than the 19 to 24 years federal prosecutors suggested. That low number was a bit odd, considering both the federal guidelines and the prosecutor’s recommendations — odder still was that District Court Judge T.S. Ellis announced before delivering the sentence that Manafort “has lived an otherwise blameless life,” and has “been a good friend to others, a generous person.”

A quick survey of the crimes for which Manafort, 69, is spending at least a part of the next decade in prison: conspiracy to defraud the United States, witness tampering, five counts of tax fraud, and two counts of bank fraud. During the trial, prosecutors put forward evidence that the lobbyist hid more than $55 million he made in Ukraine in 30 overseas bank accounts, and lied to banks about his finances to obtain millions more in loans.

Far worse than those criminal actions are his career highlights that were legal — or, at least weren’t under the scope of federal prosecutors. After setting up a lobbying shop with Roger Stone and Charles Black Jr., Manafort took his talents abroad, where he spent decades vouching for authoritarians in exchange for astonishing amounts of money. In 1985, Manafort signed a $600,000 contract with Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in exchange for boosting his reputation on the Hill as an anti-communist; it worked, and Congress sent millions in covert aid to Savimbi.

According to an astonishing report by the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer, it worked so well that the money Manafort routed to Savimbi allegedly emboldened the rebel leader to extend the Angolan Civil War, resulting in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. In the late 20th century, Manafort was something akin to the lobbying-for-authoritarians edition of Forrest Gump, popping up around the globe wherever an autocratic leader needed a patina of legitimacy. He worked for the Saudis; for Ferdinand Marcos, who assassinated his primary opponent, in the Philippines; for Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire; and was indirectly involved in the Contra-like Karachi affair. The Center for Public Integrity tidily summed up his efforts in 1992, calling Manafort’s firm the “torturer’s lobby.”

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Paul Manafort has not led an “otherwise blameless life.” To be clear, the short sentence is not the problem here. It can be simultaneously true that Manafort spent the bulk of his life in a pattern of fraudulent behavior and amoral power-brokering, and that the ailing 69-year-old shouldn’t spend the rest of it in prison blues. What makes Manafort’s case so appaling is the sentencing gap in America.

After Manafort’s 47-month stint was announced on Thursday, Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, provided a snapshot of the inequalities of a justice system where a wealthy lobbyist can be found guilty of defrauding the United States of millions of dollars and potentially be out of prison before the next World Cup.

Class and race work together in the prosecutor’s office, judge’s chambers, and juror’s box, providing something close to a systemic guarantee: A poor person, or person of color — or one of the millions of Americans to which both identities apply — will not face the same criminal-justice system that men like Paul Manafort experience. But the criminalization of poverty and criminalization of race aren’t the only embarrassing divides on display here. The stigmatization of poverty and race also ensure that a client such as Scott Hechinger’s would not receive the amiable treatment that Manafort enjoyed. Consider the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge Daniel Gaul, one of the judges featured on the third season of Serial; tonally, his courthouse is a world away from one where Manafort is called a “generous person.”

Gaul is captured lecturing defendants about the welfare state and how personal responsibility has fallen by the wayside. He also was heard telling one defendant he is not going to put taxpayers on the hook if he fathered another child out of wedlock.

Granted, Trump’s former campaign chairman may not get lucky twice. Next week, Manafort will be sentenced in D.C. for two counts of conspiracy, charges that carry a max of five years each. The judge, Amy Berman Jackson, may not be as kind to Manafort as Judge Ellis was on Thursday. Last month, Jackson ruled that Manafort had “intentionally” lied to the Mueller investigation, the FBI, and a grand jury — which may not go over well come sentencing time.

Paul Manafort: Beneficiary of America’s Sentencing Gap