Paul Manafort’s prison sentence of less than four years on bank- and tax-fraud charges Thursday sparked outrage from commentators who said it was too light a punishment for his crimes.
But a review of data for all 452 similar cases nationwide in fiscal 2018 show President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman received a sentence that was somewhat stiffer than other federal defendants’ prison terms.
The average prison sentence in such bank-fraud cases was about 31 months, roughly 16 months shorter than the 47 months Manafort received for convictions in federal court in northern Virginia, according to an analysis of court data maintained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
But Manafort, who was convicted by a jury in August 2018, fared much better when compared with other defendants who were also convicted by federal juries. The average sentence for those trials, 22 in all, was 98 months, according to the analysis.
Exact comparisons are impossible, as no two cases are exactly alike. The TRAC database allows users only to compare cases with the same lead charge – the count a prosecutor deems the most important. But each defendant may also have been convicted of other charges that could affect the length of the sentence imposed.
The review found a wide disparity between federal sentences in cases like Manafort’s, with some defendants receiving no prison time and others receiving sentences several times longer than Manafort’s. The vast majority of cases ended with defendants pleading guilty.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in the Eastern District of Virginia surprised many when he sharply departed from federal sentencing guidelines, which called for Manafort to be given from 19 to 24 years in prison for eight counts of bank and tax fraud, as well as failing to report a foreign bank account.
Sentencing guidelines are advisory only, and federal judges in the Eastern District of Virginia issue lower sentences in nearly a quarter of cases, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
At a trial last year, Manafort was found guilty of hiding millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts and later falsifying his finances to get loans. He had made the money lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians.
Ellis called the guidelines in Manafort’s case “excessive” and noted that judges in a “substantial majority” of such cases over the past decade had recommended sentences below the guidelines, before meting out Manafort’s sentence. He imposed a 47-month sentence for bank fraud, with lower terms on the other counts, all to run concurrently.
Ellis noted that Manafort had no prior criminal record. The judge also appeared to find persuasive cases cited by Manafort’s attorneys in which major tax evaders got little or no prison time.
Matthew Hicks, who represented three of those defendants, said that “all involved substantial cooperation.”
Andrew Silva, a Virginia doctor who was given probation for smuggling $211,000 from a Swiss bank account into the United States, began cooperating not long after a search warrant was issued. Hicks said at sentencing that Silva accepted responsibility “faster than any criminal defendant I have ever been associated with or known.” Hyung Kwon Kim, a South Korean immigrant who hid $28 million in foreign bank accounts and got a six-month sentence, cooperated for five years before he was formally charged.
But many tax cheats have received probationary sentences. The Justice Department in late 2017 pushed back by changing the way it calculates sentencing guidelines, now also looking at the total amount of money stored overseas rather than the amount of unpaid taxes.
Ellis ruled that Manafort’s sentencing guidelines were properly calculated under this new regime but said he could not ignore the past. “The government cannot sweep away the history of all these previous sentences,” he said.
The reaction to Manafort’s sentence was swift and fierce Thursday night, and continued to play out Friday, with the sentence being debated on cable news shows and becoming fodder at political rallies.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a presidential campaign stop in South Carolina on Friday, called Manafort’s sentence an example of a “broken” system.
“We are looking at further evidence in America’s judicial system of absolute unfairness where white-collar as opposed to other types of crime” is involved, said Harris, the former attorney general of California. She compared Manafort with a man in Mississippi who recently got a 12-year-prison sentence for having marijuana in his car.
Mihailis Diamantis, an associate professor of law at the University of Iowa, agreed, saying the case exposes inequity in the justice system that is not unique to Manafort’s case.
“I think it’s safe to say that Manafort’s sentencing is symptomatic of a deficiency of how our criminal justice system sentences white-collar criminals generally,” Diamantis wrote in an email. “Is his sentence light? Yes. As all white-collar sentences tend to be.”
Todd Haugh, an assistant professor of business and ethics at Indiana University who studies white-collar crime, said he was not surprised by the sentence in the case.
Haugh said the sentencing guidelines in such cases are partly driven by the dollar amount, so a large financial loss to the government can quickly produce a long guideline sentence that many judges feel is unduly harsh.
Manafort still faces the possibility of a significant increase in his sentence, since his prosecution was split between federal courts in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Next week, a federal judge in the District could add up to 10 years of prison time when she sentences him on counts that he defrauded the IRS and obstructed justice. Manafort pleaded guilty to the charges in September.
Manafort is approaching age 70, meaning that even a short sentence could effectively eat up most, or even the rest of his life.
“Even though these sentences seem short objectively, they are very long for someone of his age and with health problems,” Haugh said.
Skeptics of the Russia investigation saw Manafort’s sentence as vindication of their criticisms.
“The sentence was a lot less than the out of control Angry Democrat prosecutors wanted,” Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani said in a statement. “They should be ashamed of their horrendous treatment of Paul Manafort who they pressured relentlessly because, unlike Michael Cohen, he wouldn’t lie for them.”
Manafort is due in federal court in the District on Wednesday to learn his punishment in that case.