Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates received 45 days in prison from a federal judge Tuesday, the latest in a string of underwhelming sentences handed down in the Mueller probe that has cost taxpayers roughly $32 million and brought no Russia collusion-related convictions.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson also sentenced Gates to 36 months probation, a $20,000 fine and 300 hours of community service for helping his former boss, Paul Manafort, hide tens of millions of dollars from the IRS.
The light sentence, she said, is a reward for his extensive cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The nearly two-year probe uncovered plenty of wrongdoing. Mr. Mueller filed more than 100 public charges against 34 individuals and three companies. His team also spun off three cases to local prosecutors, which all turned up convictions.
But for those ensnared in Mr. Mueller’s web, the punishments have been extraordinary light.
Mueller defendants have received just over 11 years in prison. Most of the jail time went to two of President Trump’s associates. Manafort, who was chairman of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, got more than seven years and Michael Cohen, who was Mr. Trump’s legal fixer, got a three-year sentence.
Trump campaign aide George Papadopolous received 14 days in prison for lying to the FBI. The same charge netted Alex Van der Zwaan a month in prison. Richard Pinedo was sentenced to six months in prison for selling fake identities to the 13 Russians who Mr. Mueller said meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Republican lobbyist Sam Patton earned probation for violating foreign lobbying laws.
Longtime GOP political operative Roger Stone and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn have not been sentenced for their convictions.
While some of the defendants reduced their potential prison time with guilty pleas and cooperation, analysts say the minimal sentences are surprising for such a high-profile investigation.
“It does seem disproportionate, with a lot of resources put into little payoff,” said Steven Schwinn, a professor at John Marshall Law School. “These are very light sentences and if I were prosecuting these cases, I would ask for harsher sentences.”
Others say the Mueller probe should not be judged by the amount of time a defendant serves.
“You do these investigations because you think something is there. There is great value in finding out what’s there and what is not there,” said Andrew Leipold, who served as a consultant on special counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s Whitewater investigation.
“To the extent that these investigations uncover the truth, calculating the cost per prison misses the point,” he said.
Indirectly, the government will recoup some of the investigation’s expenses. But those numbers are a small fraction of its cost.
For example, Manafort must forfeit $11 million to the government and pay $6 million in restitution to the IRS. That money does not go back into the investigation itself.
Some of the defendants have incurred heavy fines. Manafort and Cohen were both required to pay fines of $50,000. Van der Zwaan and Gates were each fined $20,000, and Papadopolous was fined $9,500.
Those funds will be put into the federal crime victim fund, per Justice Department rules.
Mr. Leipold cautioned against judging the Mueller probe by the taxpayers’ tab.
“This is not a financial question,” he said. “That the probe was only successful because we put a lot of people in jail is the wrong metric. Honestly, are we any safer if Rick Gates gets 60 days jail instead of 45?”
Gates’ light sentence is a reward for his extensive cooperation with Mr. Mueller’s team.
He told the court his cooperation was an effort to atone for his criminal wrongdoing.
“I accept complete responsibility for my actions that led me to appear before you today,” he said. “I greatly regret the mistakes I made and I have worked hard to honor my commitment to make amends. My family and I appreciate your consideration for leniency and I hope and pray you will give that to me.”
Gates pleaded guilty in February 2018 to conspiracy and lying to the FBI for his role in helping Manafort shield tens of millions of dollars in foreign lobbying income from the IRS.
He then became a critical asset for the Mueller team, testifying in the criminal trials of Manafort, Stone and former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig, who was accused of violating U.S. laws against foreign lobbying.
Judge Jackson cited Gates’ assistance to the Mueller team as a factor in sentencing him but said the seriousness of his crimes warranted at least some prison time.
“It is very difficult to shake my concern that some period of incarceration is necessary to reflect the seriousness of the offense,” she said.
But she also credited Gates for his help in investigations stemming from the Mueller probe, calling it “much more than sufficient.”
“Ultimately, he cooperated fully and candidly,” she told the court.
While Gates pleaded guilty, Manafort opted to fight the charges. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in two separate trials for financial fraud.
At the time of his guilty plea, Gates was looking at as much as six years in prison. But he chose to cooperate with Mr. Mueller’s team.
The sentencing brings to an end the two-year saga of Gates and Manafort, the first members of Trump’s orbit to be charged — in October 2017 — in the Russia probe.
As a witness for the prosecution, Gates has had a mixed record. Although his testimony was key in securing a conviction in two of three cases, his credibility was savaged on the stand.
During Manafort’s trial in Virginia, Gates detailed how Manafort concealed $30 million in foreign lobbying income from the IRS. But under a fierce cross-examination from Manafort’s defense team, he confessed to embezzling from his former boss to pay for a mistress.
In the Stone case, Gates told the court how the longtime GOP political operative regularly updated campaign officials, including Mr. Trump, on WikiLeaks’ efforts to release damaging emails stolen from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Stone was convicted last month of lying to Congress about his bid to learn more about WikiLeaks’ releases. He is scheduled to be sentenced in February.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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