In 1981, a sportswriter asked New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner how it made him feel to be constantly referred to in the media as “the only convicted felon among baseball’s ownership.” Steinbrenner said, “It’s part of my life. I have to live with it.”
Well, no longer. As one of his last acts as President, Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner, who was convicted in 1974 on felony charges of conspiracy to make illegal corporate campaign contributions to President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign. (Nixon himself was later granted a pardon by President Gerald R. Ford.)
The President has the constitutional authority to pardon any person for any reason, or for no reason. But Reagan should not have pardoned Steinbrenner. It was unfair and unjust. The pardon reinforced a double standard of justice that cuts through our criminal justice system--one for the street thug and one for the corporate thug.
In January, 1981, President Jimmy Carter turned down Steinbrenner’s first request for a pardon. But Steinbrenner desperately wanted this pardon, for both personal and business reasons. In their petition to the Justice Department’s pardon attorney, Steinbrenner’s attorneys wrote that the felony conviction “continues to be a source of personal humiliation and a barrier to the normal pursuit of his community and business interests.”
Well, isn’t that the way it should be? Steinbrenner could have been sent to prison, but like many white-collar criminals with influence and power, he was let off with a meaningless fine. The only thing the law had going for it was stigma. Finger-pointing. People raising signs in Yankee Stadium that read “Steinbrenner--Convicted Felon.”
Steinbrenner’s attorneys also argued that his crime was not a serious one.
But William F. Weld, while chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division under Reagan, wrote, “One of the most challenging problems we face in combating corruption today is a widely held public perception that corruption is a victimless crime. If left unchecked it poses a powerful threat to democratic society. It erodes public confidence in the institutions of government. It distorts the democratic process, almost always to the detriment of the most disadvantaged members of society.”
Henry Ruth, a Watergate special prosecutor who worked on the Steinbrenner prosecution, told us recently: “The problem with pardoning someone like Steinbrenner is that it turns the concept of equal justice right on its ear. You pick out the rich and the famous and you pardon them, and you just don’t have a criminal justice system anymore.”
Ruth and his fellow prosecutors point out that it is customary for the Justice Department to consult with those who brought the charges before making a pardon recommendation to the President, but in the case of Steinbrenner, it did not consult with the Watergate prosecution team. They also point out that of the 20 or so corporate executives convicted of illegal campaign contributions at the time, most were brought as misdemeanors. Steinbrenner’s was brought as a felony because he, as described in the indictment, engaged in obstruction through, among other means, the “destruction and alteration of records and the creation of misleading records.”
This country is facing a tidal wave of corporate and white-collar crime. Insider trading, bank and thrift fraud, public corruption, environmental crimes, defense procurement fraud, death and injury on the job abound. It is difficult enough for federal and state prosecutors, strapped by scarce resources and working against powerful institutional and political biases, to move forcefully against elite businessmen, gain a modicum of justice and seek to deter future criminal activity. To overcome those odds and gain a successful felony conviction, only to see it come unraveled 15 years later by presidential pardon, is disheartening to prosecutors and undermines citizen respect for the law.
The pardon authority should be reserved for cases of injustice, to free people wrongly convicted or harshly punished for minor wrongs. It should not be used to clear powerful members of the corporate and political elite, like Steinbrenner and Nixon, who corrupt the public process.