(Adds White House response)
By Sarah N. Lynch and Karen Freifeld
WASHINGTON, July 21 (Reuters) - When President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen sued late on Monday over his return to prison, he said he was facing retribution because he is writing a book critical of his former boss.
The surprise move against Cohen, who had been released to home arrest because of the coronavirus pandemic, has some legal experts and congressional Democrats asking whether Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr are manipulating the justice system to reward Trump’s allies and punish his enemies.
Trump’s decision to spare longtime friend Roger Stone from prison, and the Department of Justice dropping its case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn despite his guilty plea have commanded more national attention. But outspoken critics, including Cohen and celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti, may be getting worse treatment, some legal observers said.
Cohen, who once boasted he would “take a bullet” for Trump before turning on him, said a July 9 meeting with probation officials ended with marshals shackling him after he hesitated to sign a gag order banning him from engaging with the media, using social media or writing a book. Days earlier, Cohen had tweeted that his book was nearly complete.
“He is being held in retaliation for his protected speech, including drafting a book manuscript that is critical of the President,” said the lawsuit against Barr filed in federal court in Manhattan. A hearing has been scheduled for Thursday on an emergency motion seeking Cohen’s immediate release.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit. The lawsuit does not accuse the White House of wrongdoing.
“The White House had nothing to do with Mr. Cohen’s re-imprisonment and that decision was made independently by the Bureau of Prisons,” a White House official said. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is an arm of the Justice Department.
In the book, tentatively titled “Disloyal: The True Story of Michael Cohen, Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump,” Cohen said in court papers he will detail alleged racist remarks by Trump about former President Barack Obama and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
A BOP spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said Cohen refused to consent to the terms of home confinement including electronic monitoring. Cohen denies that.
Cohen’s treatment is expected to come up on July 28 when Barr appears before a Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee inquiry into whether the Justice Department has become too politicized.
The scope of the panel’s investigation includes whether Trump’s Republican friends have received preferential treatment by the department, and whether his enemies have been treated more harshly, a committee aide said.
Criminal defense lawyers say the terms imposed on Cohen - including stopping his family and friends from making public statements on his behalf - are not in line with the conditions most inmates face in home confinement during the pandemic.
“The typical conditions of release do not include internet or social-media restrictions,” said San Diego attorney Devin Burstein, who has reviewed more than 50 orders granting release because of COVID-19.
Cohen served a year of his three-year sentence for crimes including campaign finance violations related to buying silence from women about alleged affairs with Trump.
Trump’s former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, sentenced to 45 days for crimes including lying to the FBI, has faced no limitations on social media or internet access on supervised release, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Reuters could not immediately determine what conditions were required when Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was released to home confinement in May after being sentenced last year to 7-1/2 years on federal bank and tax fraud charges.
A prisons official said politics played no role in the treatment of inmates and declined to say whether other inmates have been asked to sign similar gag orders.
“There is no ‘conspiracy’ against specific inmates,” said BOP spokesman Emery Nelson.
Avenatti represented adult film star Stormy Daniels, who was paid to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump. Trump’s representatives denied the allegations.
Avenatti was convicted of trying to extort Nike Inc, but was released due to the pandemic. As a condition of his release while he awaits trial in two other cases, prosecutors demanded that Avenatti be banned from internet access.
In a June 25 letter from Avenatti sent to lawmakers and seen by Reuters, he said he was temporarily housed in a cell block that has held high-risk detainees including drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
“This is sort of like the Nixon enemies list, where the BOP and senior political appointee DOJ officials put their finger on the pulse and regulate it,” said Joel Hirschhorn, a Miami criminal defense attorney. “There is no question that this was driven by political influence.” (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Karen Freifeld in New York; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)