Clinton Pardons Raise Questions of Timing, Motive
Former President Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive commodities trader, has drawn fire. But a broader look at Clinton’s list of 176 final pardons and commutations shows that it was a process that in several cases did not fit Justice Department guidelines.
The outpouring of clemency unleashed the final furor over the Clinton presidency, sparking calls for a congressional investigation and criticisms that have followed him to his new private life in New York.
“It seems to me there were quite a few pardons outside the normal Department of Justice channels, and that’s unusual,” said C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel in the 1980s for President George Bush.
In extending clemency, Clinton included 48 drug offenders--among them his half brother, Roger--and 20 residents of his home state of Arkansas.
Although many of the people receiving executive clemency went through proper channels, officials voiced concern about how many, in addition to Rich, who did not. In some cases, Justice Department lawyers learned about the actions only late in the process.
At least 10 people, including some who served in the Clinton administration, did not meet the Justice Department guideline of having at least five years of good conduct before seeking a pardon.
Among them were former CIA Director John M. Deutch, who was preparing to plead guilty to keeping classified information on his home computer; former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, who was negotiating a plea agreement in a bank fraud case; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of lying in 1999; and former Arkansas state Rep. Lloyd George, who was convicted in 1997 of selling overpriced equipment to the state prison system.
The commutation of fraud sentences for four members of a New York Hasidic community whose leaders supported the successful Senate campaign of Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, also has drawn criticism.
Sen. Clinton has denied she played a role in any of the pardons.
In Rich’s case, his former wife, who wrote to Clinton “as a friend and an admirer,” also has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic Party causes.
Justice Department officials were stunned by the pardon of Rich, who was indicted in 1983 on charges of tax fraud and illegal oil trading with Iran. He then fled the United States.
Clinton has defended his action, saying he “spent a lot of personal time” making the decision and that once all the facts are known it would be justified.
Rich’s pardon followed a direct appeal from Jack Quinn, Clinton’s former White House counsel. Quinn signed a letter to the president concerning the matter with his first name only, the petition for Rich’s pardon shows.
‘Law Enforcement Concerns’ Raised
Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney in New York, voiced concern about commutations for Kalmen Stern, David Goldstein, Jacob Elbaum and Benjamin Berger, all members of New Square Village in Rockland County. They were convicted of cheating the federal government of tens of millions of dollars in student aid grants for the needy. In addition to supporting Hillary Clinton’s Senate candidacy, the village leaders met with the Clintons at the White House.
“Recognizing that clemency decisions are a matter of presidential prerogative, the facts of several of these cases in particular raise significant law enforcement concerns,” White said. “The seriousness of the crimes is diminished, and the fact and the appearance of evenhanded justice is compromised.”
White did get a last-minute warning that the New Square cases were coming, said an aide, but was given the impression that the decision was a fait accompli.
Justice Department records for Clinton’s final pardons and commutations show that good fortune also fell upon a broad assortment of convicts, from a pilot who flew while drunk to a woman who was prosecuted after she gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a gift with an eagle feather, which violated the Bald Eagle Protection Act.
At least five people who won pardons sent letters from members of Congress to support their petitions. Other prominent Americans who wrote letters included former television anchor Walter Cronkite and Lady Bird Johnson on behalf of Texas banker Ruben Johnson, convicted of bank fraud; the late Cardinal John O’Connor on behalf of onetime New York limousine mogul William Denis Fugazy, convicted of perjury; and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on behalf of Samuel Loring Morison, a former Naval intelligence employee who was convicted of leaking secret photos to a magazine.
Even when the Justice Department was included in pardon considerations, the stampede-like quality disturbed some familiar with particular cases.
Steve Carlton, a prosecutor in West Palm Beach, Fla., said he was informed late in the process of the Justice Department’s plan to commute the sentence of Arnold Paul Prosperi, a Clinton fund-raiser whose ties to the president go back to their college days. Prosperi ran Clinton’s campaign for student body president at Georgetown University in 1967 and later helped him raise more than $400,000 to refurbish the White House.
Prosperi, convicted of filing false tax returns, suffers from a rare muscular disease. Although sentenced to three years in prison, he now will serve his time under house arrest.
“The way that it was done as far as the timing raises questions about whether sufficient time was allowed for a full and thorough review of the matter,” Carlton said. “The president has the right to do this. I think the manner in which it was done raises the questions, not the ultimate fact that it was done.”
Behind-the-scenes maneuvers to commute sentences left even some of the beneficiaries somewhat bewildered.
In December, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that believes rigid sentencing guidelines can lead to excessively severe penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, sent a dozen clemency requests to the Justice Department and the White House, focusing on first-time offenders who had no history of violence and cases in which one defendant received a lengthy prison term and where a co-defendant got a shorter sentence. Most were ultimately granted.
Of Clinton’s 36 commutations, 21 were for drug offenses. “For our purposes, it went pretty well, because a lot of our prisoners got released,” said Julie Stewart, the organization’s founder and president. “But I think the process is goofy.”
After Stewart’s group submitted its names to the White House, “we had no idea what they were thinking,” she said.
Carter’s One-Term Numbers Stand Out
Based on numbers alone, Clinton’s overall record on granting pardons or commutations does not stand out greatly from that of other recent presidents.
Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of 456 people during his two terms in office but granted no clemency requests at all in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997, according to Justice Department records.
P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois and an authority on executive clemency, said that at times Clinton even appeared “stingy” in his use of the power. The last-minute flood, he noted, had “an unusual quality to it.”
But there was a precedent, he added.
“George Washington pardoned more people his last day in office than the entire time he was in office,” Ruckman said.
Franklin D. Roosevelt--who served more than 12 years in office--used the clemency power more than any president, granting 3,687 petitions. For Ronald Reagan, the total was 406 over two terms in office. Jimmy Carter was much more generous: He granted 563 requests in just one term. George Bush granted clemency in just 77 cases.
Still, Bush managed to set off his own storm of protest when he pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, along with other defendants in the Iran-Contra scandal, on Christmas Eve 1992.
Gray, who served as Bush’s White House counsel, acknowledged that the Weinberger clemency went outside the routine process. But he maintained that it was a “highly unusual” departure for the Bush White House.
Among those expressing outrage at the time was the incoming president--Clinton. “I am concerned about any action that sends a signal that if you work for the government you’re above the law or that not telling the truth to Congress under oath is somehow less serious than not telling the truth to some other body under oath,” he declared.
But while Clinton’s exercise of so many pardons and commutations at the end of his term caused a furor, few argue that he lacked the legal power to do it. A president’s pardon power is virtually absolute, and the Supreme Court has never upheld a challenge to one.
“This is a power for kings,” said Ruckman, the executive clemency expert.
Times staff writers Judy Pasternak, Alan C. Miller and Nick Anderson, and Times librarian Robin Cochran contributed to this story.