Written by Lisa Knab
Rick Gates, a former campaign official for President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty to two criminal charges on February 23, 2018. The plea came less than 24 hours after a grand jury indicted him on a host of new charges.
With 32 total indictments, growing from the initial eight he faced as of October 2018, Gates sent a letter sent to family and friends. In it, he explained that despite his “initial desire to vigorously defend” himself, Gates made the decision to plead guilty in an attempt to protect his four children. In weighing a guilty plea against the costly and time-consuming process of proceeding to trial, Gates stated that he felt he would “better serve [his] family moving forward by exiting [the] process.”
The charges Gates pleaded guilty to include conspiring to defraud the United States and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) when trying to secure an earlier plea deal. The conspiracy charge stemmed from an intense investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, which uncovered what prosecutors allege to be a decade-long scheme. Prosecutors claim that Gates, led by long-time business partner Paul Manafort, laundered millions of dollars the pair made while working for a political party in Ukraine. According to the prosecution, the pair used the money to buy property and luxurious goods to support Manafort’s “lavish lifestyle.”
Manafort, who was also indicted on 32 charges, has maintained his innocence. In a statement made shortly after Gates’ guilty plea, Manafort stated that he “had hoped and expected [his] business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove [their] innocence.” Nevertheless, Manafort stated that Gates’ decision did “not alter [his own] commitment to defend [him]self against the untrue piled-up charges contained in the indictments against [him].”
The Plea Deal
As part of the deal, in exchange for admitting to conspiring to defraud the United States and lying to the FBI, the prosecution has agreed to drop various charges, including a forfeiture demand that, if convicted, could have made Gates liable for up to $18 million.
In addition, the deal provides that Gates will cooperate with Mueller and his associates in their continued investigation of Manafort. This is significant because, as Manafort’s long-time, right-hand man, Gates was trusted with information regarding Manafort’s alleged schemes.
Without the deal, and without considering the dropped charges, Gates could have faced up to 10 years in prison on the conspiracy and lying charges alone. However, under the deal, prosecutors have agreed that Gates will receive a recommended sentence of only four-to-six years, as well as a fine between $20,000 and $200,000. The final sentence will factor in Gates’ cooperation in aiding the investigation of Manafort.
Finally, Gates’ lawyer retains the right to advocate for an even lesser sentence based on Gates’ “disproportionate conduct” as compared to Manafort. A status hearing has been set for May 14, 2018, at which time the government will update the court on the status of the case, including Gates’ cooperation up until that point.
Cooperation and Additional Factors
While everyone following the investigations led by Mueller will likely have an opinion on the sentence Gates should receive, the final decision is in the hands of the judge. In addition to considering Gates’ cooperation and “disproportionate conduct,” the judge may consider various other mitigating or aggravating factors. An aggravating factor is a circumstance which would merit a greater sentence, while a mitigating factor is one which would support a lesser sentence.
As explained above, the judge will consider Gates’ cooperation when imposing a sentence. Depending on the actions of Gates in the coming weeks, this could serve as either a mitigating or aggravating factor. In other words, if Gates cooperates only minimally, the judge may view this as cause for a greater sentence. On the other hand, if Gates provides the government with a great deal of useful information concerning the activities of Manafort, the judge may view this as warranting a lesser sentence. Keeping in line with precedent, it is likely the judge will also consider any “disproportionate conduct,” any existence, or lack thereof, of a prior criminal record, as well as whether Gates feels genuine remorse.
While part of Gates’ plea deal includes a recommended sentence of four-to-six years, the actual sentence handed down is dependent upon factors weighed by the judge. The main factor for consideration will be his cooperation with the government in the investigation of Manafort. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Gates’ actions, over the next few weeks, will play a key role in the fate of Manafort and/or mitigate the length of his own sentence.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors, JUSTIA (last visited Feb. 24, 2018).
Debra Cassens Weiss, Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleads guilty in special counsel probe, ABA Journal (Feb. 23, 2018).
Devlin Barnett and Spencer S. Hsu, Former Trump campaign official Rick Gates pleads guilty to 2 charges, The Washington Post (Feb. 23, 2018).
Zoe Tillman, Former Trump Campaign Adviser Rick Gates Pleaded Guilty To Conspiracy And Lying To Investigators, BuzzFeed News (Feb. 23, 2018).
Photo created by a court artist, courtesy of VOA News.