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Why Judge T.S. Ellis gave Paul Manafort only 47 months in prison

Judge T.S. Ellis
Posted at 1:35 PM, Mar 10, 2019

(CNN) -- Paul Manafort's criminal sentence just wasn't about the Russia investigation.

Instead, T.S. Ellis, a veteran judge in the Eastern District of Virginia federal court, spent Manafort's sentencing considering a litany of complicated, sometimes mundane legal and financial questions.

"He is not before the court for any allegation that he or anybody at his direction colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election," Ellis said in court. Manafort was there for tax fraud, hiding foreign bank accounts and bank fraud.

In short, this was a fairly typical financial fraud matter that many perceived as a show trial for the Mueller investigation. Even many of Manafort's admitted crimes, like illegal foreign lobbying and money laundering, weren't part of what Ellis considered on Thursday.

Here are answers to some questions about Ellis' ruling and reasoning:

How did he decide 4 years was a 'just' sentence?

Ellis, with 30 years of experience as a federal judge in a busy criminal court, sends a lot of people to jail.

That doesn't mean they always go to jail for a long time. But it does mean he has enough experience to form his own opinions on whether recommended guidelines are fair.

"I don't expect the sentence I'm about to announce to meet with everyone's approval," he said Thursday, before announcing Manafort's sentence. "I don't sit to do it that way. I sit to impose a just sentence, and I have to satisfy myself about it."

Ellis said in court several times that he believed the advisory sentence for Manafort was overkill, with a recommended punishment of decades being far too harsh.

"Clearly the guidelines were way out of whack on this, as the history of the sentences in this area show," the judge said near the end of Thursday's hearing. "It's a fundamental principle of justice that like cases should be treated alike, and if they're treated differently, there ought to be a good reason for it."

Generally, he added, he believed the sentencing recommendations for fraud on tax and foreign banking disclosures are too high.

Was Ellis bound by the recommended sentence of 19 to 25 years?

Not in this case. Judges have wide latitude to sentence however they want -- except when certain crimes carry congressionally mandated sentences.

Ellis disagrees with these too, when he has much less ability to give whatever sentence he wants. Manafort's crimes didn't have minimum or mandatory sentences set by Congress.

Instead, Ellis got to decide on his own. Throughout the hearing, he touched on many of the facts at hand, his own legal analysis of which parts of Manafort's case he should consider, and the comprehensive advisory calculation from the court's probation office. The probation office had recommended that Manafort's crimes merited a 19 year to 25 year sentence.

The guidelines can help judges standardize the sentences they give. But, as Ellis pointed out, they're merely suggestions.

Just one of the perks of a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

Was the sentence too light?

Not if it's compared to the cases the defense lawyers and the judge pointed to during the hearing and in their written arguments.

Manafort's defense team gave Ellis 17 cases to consider where defendants broke tax or foreign banking laws and got probation or home detention -- in other words, no prison time. In some of these cases, the guidelines recommended the defendants go to prison for years -- and yet judges all over the country decided that wasn't necessary.

Ellis cited one case he handled that was similar to Manafort's involving secret foreign bank accounts. In that case, Ellis gave a man who avoided paying exponentially more in taxes than Manafort only seven months in prison.

In one case, which Ellis and Manafort's attorneys discussed in court on Thursday, a woman kept an undisclosed $47 million in a foreign bank account and received a sentence of 5 seconds of probation.

That's right -- 5 seconds.

What did Ellis care about?

The cases above compared to only some of the crimes Manafort was convicted for. At trial, a jury agreed unanimously that Manafort had defrauded the IRS by making false claims on his tax statements. It convicted him on all five tax counts, for false statements every year from 2010 to 2014.

In all, Manafort failed to pay $6 million in taxes because he did not report all of his overseas income. Ellis ordered Manafort to pay at least this back -- and more -- in restitution. He also fined him $50,000.

"The real essence of his violation is he stole from us, from people who paid their taxes," Ellis said in court.

The jury also convicted Manafort on one count of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts to a different regulatory agency. Though he was charged with this offense four times, for four years, the jury only found him guilty in 2012. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other three foreign banking charges, and prosecutors dropped them later after Manafort publicly admitted to those crimes in a different court.

Ellis, on Thursday, made clear he believed the tax crimes and the foreign banking crimes were essentially the same thing. "Hide money from the government so you don't have to pay taxes on it," the judge said, describing both crimes.

Ellis gave Manafort two years in prison for each of the tax crimes, and a two-and-a-half-year sentence for the foreign banking crime. But these should all run concurrently, he said. The 47-month sentence Manafort received for bank fraud supplants all of the above.

What about the bank fraud?

Ellis has always appeared to have a hard time stomaching the prosecutors' multiple accusations of Manafort's bank fraud and bank fraud conspiracy. He was tried on six falsified loan applications for millions of dollars in mortgages, most of which Manafort received from the banks. But the banks never lost money.

Ellis struggled on Thursday reckoning how Manafort's crimes could be punished harshly when the banks he defrauded saw little financial loss. Prosecutors argued in court that one bank would have lost $6 million if it had given Manafort a loan -- but that loan never closed, so the money was never lost. (The jury hung on this count.)

Still, Manafort admitted he engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the bank for this crime. Ellis sided with the prosecutors on the legal standard around his intentions to harm that bank, but he said it didn't factor much into the final sentence.

Much of the full value of the mortgages that Manafort received through fraudulent loan applications may be returned to the banks because of a forfeiture proceeding that's still in progress.

What about Manafort's other crimes?

Money laundering, illegal foreign lobbying, admitted bank fraud—even the charges he was tried on and not convicted for in Virginia—will all come up next week when a different federal judge, Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court in DC, takes Manafort through a second round of sentencing.

The charges she can sentence him for, which are conspiracy against the US and witness tampering under his guilty plea, are capped at a 10-year maximum. Manafort has already agreed in writing in his plea agreement that he deserves well more than that, suggesting Jackson could look to the top end of the 10-year range.

Prosecutors haven't yet asked her to pile her sentence on top of the four years Ellis gave, but they may still, they said. And it'll be entirely up to Jackson whether she wants him to serve time concurrently or sit in prison for one set of crimes first, then a second set.

Does Ellis care about the criticism?

Ellis has said before in court he doesn't care about media or the public's attention, and wishes more attention could be paid to the daily, less newsworthy activities of the federal court. But he's also a showman. He lambasted prosecutors throughout the trial for the way they structured the case and questioned witnesses, and he called out the special counsel's office for wanting to "get" to President Donald Trump with their case against Manafort.

On Thursday, Ellis' approach was more toned down.

He tackled intricate questions about federal sentencing, and even described the history of the process to the packed courtroom.

Ultimately, the judge said he felt Manafort's sentence was a potent and fair punishment for a serious crime.

He wanted it to "stand as a beacon to others" that they could go to prison for crimes like these, he said, adding that "I'm convinced that's a just sentence."

As he neared the end of delivering the sentence, Ellis reminded the courtroom that any prison sentence and financial punishment from a federal court is no joke.

"If anybody in this courtroom doesn't think so, go and spend a day in the jail or penitentiary of the federal government. Spend a week there," Ellis said. "He has to spend 47 months."

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