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In a decision likely to be framed by conservative media as a vindictive abuse of power, filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza was sentenced on Tuesday to eight months in a confinement center, a $30,000 fine and five years’ probation after pleading in May that he was guilty of violating campaign finance laws.
D’Souza’s movies, America this year and two years earlier, 2016: Obama’s America, are critical of the left — and in the case of the first one, President Barack Obama — and they are among the most successful political documentaries in history. D’Souza was indicted in January after he promised his then-fiancee and his former assistant that if they each donated $10,000 to the campaign of a friend who was running for the U.S. Senate he would then reimburse them.
The FBI said D’Souza’s arrest stemmed from a routine investigation while his supporters — and even some legal experts who disagree with his politics, such as attorney Alan Dershowitz — accused authorities of targeting the filmmaker for political retribution. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas argued that it was “a remarkably selective prosecution considering Obama raised millions of dollars under similar circumstances.”
D’Souza himself has also insinuated that he was the victim of political retribution. In a scene in America, for example, he appears in a prison cell and says, “We don’t want to live in a society where Lady Justice has one eye open and winks at her friends, and casts the evil eye at her adversaries.” (See that two-minute scene exclusively above). Plus, D’Souza recently tweeted a picture of his Facebook page’s 350,000 “likes” with the text, “The Obama campaign to shut me up: Is it working?”
D’Souza had been lobbying for community service, though federal prosecutors didn’t take kindly to his claims of persecution. “Based on the defendant’s own post-plea statements, the court should reject the defendant’s claims of contrition on the eve of sentencing,” prosecutors wrote in a public filing where they argued D’Souza should serve 10-16 months in prison. The maximum sentence he faced was two years.
D’Souza’s attorneys at Brafman & Associates in New York also argued in court documents that their client was “singled out for more vigorous prosecution.” Cases the government prosecutors cite in order to convince the judge that D’Souza deserved time in prison were “disingenuous” because in each case there were “aggravating factors,” such as wire fraud or political favors, the attorneys said. “The distinctions, we submit, are so significant that to cite those cases in support of a sentence parity argument requires a tortured logic,” the attorneys wrote.
Conservatives had also noted that the lead prosecutor, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was appointed by Obama after he donated money to the president’s 2009 inauguration. Cruz, along with fellow GOP senators Mike Lee, Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions fired off a letter to FBI director James Comey asking for clarification of the “routine investigation,” while Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request in June for those details, though the conservative watchdog group says it’s still awaiting a response.
In the end, though, D’Souza’s attorney, Benjamin Brafman, acknowledged that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman of the Southern District of New York could have come down much harder on his client. “We are obviously delighted that Judge Berman spared Mr. D’Souza from serving any prison sentence. This was an enlightened sentence by a court who carefully and thoughtfully reviewed all of the facts and imposed an appropriately lenient sentence,” he said.
Gerald Molen, the Oscar-winning producer of Schindler’s List and of D’Souza’s two movies also claimed victory after the sentencing. “I’m pleased that the judge has rejected the attempts by the Justice Department and the Obama administration to imprison my good friend Dinesh D’Souza. Now he’s free to do what he does best — make more movies and write more books,” Molen told The Hollywood Reporter.
D’Souza has remained free on $500,000 bond since his arrest eight months ago.
More than two dozen people wrote letters to Berman urging him to go easy on D’Souza, who had admitted he broke the law but has an otherwise clean legal record.
“Dinesh never asked or expected anything in return for helping my campaign and did not seek any gain from this act of pure friendship,” wrote Wendy Long, whose campaign was the recipient of D’Souza’s illegal contributions. Long, a Republican, ran unsuccessfully against Democratic incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York in 2012.
D’Souza also wrote his own letter to Berman, beginning with: “When I think about what I did, I am filled with a sense of sheer frustration, exasperation and regret. I cannot believe how stupid I was. … I have already paid a price for this behavior in having the FBI investigate me, having handcuffs behind my back and being exposed to public disgrace and embarrassment.”
In his letter to the judge, D’Souza suggested that he might teach English to immigrants or work with the Boys and Girls Club in lieu of going to prison. It was a notion supported in several letters to Berman, including one penned by Molen. “It is my prayer that in your consideration and determinations you will see him as he is, a most remorseful and penitent man, determined to make amends and give service to his community. I therefore ask for leniency on his behalf,” Molen wrote.
D’Souza’s sentence, in fact, did include one day of community service for each week of his probation, including while he is in the confinement center, which is a facility near D’Souza’s home in San Diego. Insiders say he will be free to leave the center by day, but he must spend his nights there.
Also weighing in on D’Souza’s behalf via a letter to the judge was radio and TV personality Laura Ingraham, who wrote of her time working with D’Souza on the Dartmouth Review, a conservative, alternative newspaper founded in 1980 to counter the university’s more liberal official newspaper.
“When other students partied at frats, Dinesh worked as a stringer for a Catholic newspaper to make a few dollars,” wrote Ingraham. “Having come to the U.S. as a 17-year-old exchange student from India, Dinesh didn’t have ‘spending money.’ He made it all himself. Classmates teased him because he possessed exactly one pair of shoes (with huge holes in the soles!). I didn’t care — Dinesh was teaching me how to write a news story, edit copy, track down sources and most importantly, to stay firm in my principles.”
Another letter came from C. Edward McVaney, the retired founder and CEO of software firm J.D. Edwards & Co. and an investor in D’Souza’s first two films as well as an additional three movies that are in the planning stages. “Despite Dinesh’s error in judgment, one cannot deny that he is a good, good man,” wrote McVaney.
Other letters urging leniency came from D’Souza’s mother, siblings and other relatives still living in India. And one very personal letter was written by D’Souza’s daughter, who is in her first year at Dartmouth and told the judge that her father was divorcing her mother at the time of his legal transgression. “I can confidently say that this would impair anyone’s judgment,” she wrote.
Contradicting her daughter and others, though, was D’Souza’s ex-wife, Dixie, who accused her former husband of abuse and claimed he had a selfish motivation for donating illegally to Long’s campaign. “He told me that he felt compelled to ‘pay her back’ because she introduced him to a ‘big’ donor who helped fund the Obama 2016 movie,” she wrote.
Berman read from the letter during the sentencing hearing and appeared sympathetic to its claims, directing D’Souza to undergo “therapeutic counseling” and telling him that he had doubts about him accepting responsibility for what he had done.
Sep. 23, 2:35 p.m. Updated with more details about sentencing and statements from the judge, attorney and Molen.
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