Watching the ongoing Paul Manafort saga from afar, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson might well be thinking that it’s a painfully small world.
A decade after the former New Orleans congressman was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges that included soliciting bribes, depriving constituents of his honest services, money laundering and racketeering — and two years after his sentence was shortened to time served because of a related U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Jefferson would recognize the key players from the two cases involving President Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chair.
Or maybe he wouldn’t. While the faces haven’t changed, their roles sure have.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who sentenced Manafort to 47 months in prison Thursday following his jury conviction on tax and bank fraud charges, is the same Reagan-appointed Virginia jurist who handed down Jefferson’s sentence in 2009.
Next up is Manafort’s sentencing following his guilty plea to charges involving illegal lobbying, in Washington, D.C., before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. In 2009, before President Barack Obama appointed her to the federal bench, Jackson served as part of Jefferson’s defense team.
Here’s the twist: While Ellis talked tough to Jefferson, he showed a disturbing soft spot for Manafort, and his leniency and sympathetic words have set off a frenzied discussion over whether justice is meted out equally.
And Jackson, once an advocate for the defendant she represented, is the one who is expected to come down hard on Manafort. She already has, having revoked his $10 million bond and sent him to jail for witness tampering.
Ellis and Jackson aren’t the only familiar players in the sprawling probe surrounding Trump and his many associates. Jefferson’s lead attorney, Robert Trout, was retained by former White House communications aide Hope Hicks. And Richard Westling, who was the lawyer for Jefferson’s campaign accountant-turned-prosecution witness, showed up on Manafort’s defense team. They’re bit players, though, compared to the two judges.
In fact, in departing drastically from the 19-to-24 year sentence suggested by guidelines, and by declaring in court that the high-flying political consultant had led an “otherwise blameless life,” Ellis invited comparisons to other defendants, including unlucky and far less prominent ones who’ve drawn similar sentences for low-level drug crimes and even mistakenly improperly voting.
He also prompted numerous commentators to re-examine just how “blameless” Manafort’s life has been. In one particularly cutting piece, The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer chronicled how Manafort worked for a series of bad apples abroad, regularly trafficked in financial corruption, used his position with the Trump campaign to “help salvage his sorry financial situation," committed tax evasion “at an industrial scale,” and normalized corruption in Washington to the point where even a federal judge couldn’t be bothered to be all that offended.
Ellis also gave Jefferson a downward departure from the sentencing sought by prosecutors, but it was not nearly as generous. Nor did the judge show nearly as much empathy. At sentencing, he argued that "public corruption is a cancer that needs to be surgically removed" and said Jefferson’s sentence should be a "beacon" about the cost of compromising the public trust.
And years later, when he reduced Jefferson’s sentence following a Supreme Court ruling in the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Ellis wrote this: "The Supreme Court described Gov. McDonnell’s actions as 'tawdry' and 'distasteful.' Jefferson's actions went well beyond being 'tawdry' and 'distasteful'; they were plainly venal and reflected corrupt intent."
If Jackson was in Jefferson’s corner way back when, so far she’s been the one who’s been willing to hold Manafort to account. Last June, when she revoked his bond for attempting to contact another witness, she said that “this isn’t middle school, I can’t take your phone.” She later ruled that Manafort had lied to the special counsel’s investigators with whom he’d promised to cooperate as part of his plea agreement in her court.
Manafort's "concessions comes in dribs and drabs, only after it's clear that the Office of Special Counsel already knew the answer," Jackson said. "Again, it's part of a pattern of requiring the Office of Special Counsel to pull teeth; withholding facts if he can get away with it."
Now that Ellis has had his say, Jackson gets her shot at sentencing Manafort this week.
Somehow, I don’t think the phrase “otherwise blameless life” will come up.