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Bush spares Libby from prison

Times Staff Writers

President Bush wiped away the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on Monday, calling it an “excessive” punishment for a “first-time offender with years of exceptional public service.”

On the day that Libby’s last bid to stay out of prison was rejected by an appeals court, Bush said he had decided to act -- not by pardoning Libby of his crime, but by commuting his 30-month sentence. Bush’s action spares Libby from prison, but it does not erase Libby’s felony conviction for perjury and obstruction in the CIA leak case.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 04, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Libby commutation: A chart in Section A on Tuesday accompanying an article on President Bush commuting I. Lewis “Scooter Libby’s prison sentence listed past presidential commutations and pardons. It should have indicated that the totals for several presidents were given in fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and are the way the Department of Justice tracks the records. Thus, President Kennedy was listed from 1961 to 1964; President Johnson from 1964-1969; President Nixon from 1969-1975; and President Ford, 1975-1977. In addition, Gerald R. Ford’s middle initial was mistakenly given as “E.”

It “leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby,” Bush said in a statement, including the likely loss of his license to practice law. Libby also faces a $250,000 fine and two years’ probation.

Libby, 56, was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and a powerful figure inside the Bush White House during the buildup to the Iraq war.

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Compared with other presidents, Bush has granted few pardons or commutations, and those were usually for people who had already served their sentences. As governor of Texas, he also spoke with pride of not interfering with death sentences and executions.

Under the Constitution, the president’s decision to pardon a criminal or to commute his prison term cannot be overturned by Congress or the courts. It can be criticized, however, and Democrats were quick to lambaste the president.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “disgraceful.” Libby’s conviction “was the one faint glimmer of accountability for the White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war. Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone,” Reid said.

“When it comes to the law, there should not be two sets of rules -- one for President Bush and Vice President Cheney and another for the rest of America,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) “Even Paris Hilton had to go to jail.”

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Several Democratic presidential candidates also condemned the action, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who called it typical of an administration that “has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law.”

However, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said the president “did the right thing today.... The prison sentence was overly harsh and the punishment did not fit the crime.”

Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, said: “After evaluating the facts, the president came to a reasonable decision and I believe the decision was correct.”

Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who is considering entering the GOP race for the White House, said Bush should have gone further. “While for a long time I have urged a pardon for Scooter, I respect the president’s decision. This will allow a good American, who has done a lot for his country, to resume his life.”

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Bush could still pardon Libby later.

William Jeffress Jr., one of Libby’s lawyers, said Libby had no comment.

“As for the defense lawyers,” Jeffress said, “we continue to believe the conviction itself is unjust but are grateful for the president’s action in commuting the prison sentence.”

Some legal observers said it still would be possible for the defense to continue its appeal. If it is successful, Libby will then avoid the taint of the felony conviction and the loss of his law license. Jeffress said the defense would fight to have the entire case thrown out.

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Libby was questioned by the FBI in fall 2003 about the leak of the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, had publicly accused Bush and Cheney of falsely claiming that Iraqi agents had tried to purchase fuel for nuclear weapons in Africa. Wilson had been sent to the nation of Niger to assess the nuclear material claim and had found it baseless.

Libby denied that he had discussed Plame in June 2003, but nine witnesses later testified that he had spoken of her.

Libby was prosecuted for lying to the FBI and to a grand jury and for obstructing justice. In March, he was convicted by a jury in Washington, and last month, a federal judge sentenced him to 2 1/2 years behind bars.

On Monday morning, Libby was on the verge of becoming the first high-level White House official to be sent to prison since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit turned down his request to stay free, saying he had not raised a “substantial question” about his conviction.

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In his two-page statement Monday, Bush said: “I have carefully weighed [the] arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case. I respect the jury’s verdict.” He described Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald as “a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged.”

However, without naming U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, Bush said he disagreed with the decision of the “district court” to send Libby to prison. “The Constitution gives the president the power of clemency to be used when he deems it to be warranted. It is my judgment that a commutation of the prison term in Mr. Libby’s case is an appropriate exercise of this power,” Bush said.

A court spokesman said Walton would have no comment on Bush’s decision.

Fitzgerald, a Bush appointee who is the U.S. attorney in Chicago, issued a statement disputing the president’s assertion that the sentence was “excessive,” saying “an experienced federal judge” had followed the “applicable laws” in imposing punishment.

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“It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals,” he said. “That principle guided the judge during both the trial and the sentencing.”

Libby’s plight posed an acute political dilemma for Bush, who has shown reluctance to issue pardons but felt strong pressure to pardon Libby.

Bush has granted far fewer pardons than most presidents in the last 100 years, said Margaret Colgate Love, a former Justice Department attorney who oversaw pardons for eight years. Bush has issued only a third as many as pardons as President Reagan, for example, over the same duration in office.

Bush’s public approval has sagged badly in the last two years. Many of his strongest supporters are conservatives who believe Libby should not have been prosecuted in the first place. They argue that Plame was not a true covert agent and that no crime was committed when her identity became public. And they note that others admitted to having revealed Plame’s identity, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, whose conversation with columnist Robert Novak led to the first public mention of her.

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he planned to hold hearings on the administration’s handling of the leak in the Plame case.

“Now that the White House can no longer argue that there is a pending criminal investigation, I expect them to be fully forthcoming,” he said.

Wilson, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, condemned the commutation and suggested that Bush was acting to ensure that full details of his or Cheney’s involvement in the leak affair would never come to light. With Libby off the hook for any jail time, Wilson said, the former White House aide will have no incentive to cooperate with investigators in the future about involvement of his superiors.

“The president has clearly short-circuited the rule of law and the system of justice in this country, and I think there is a legitimate reason to ask why,” Wilson said.

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John J. Pitney Jr., a former Republican staffer who is a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, questioned whether Bush’s decision would have much political effect. “Anybody who would disapprove of the commutation has turned against Bush already,” he said.

david.savage@latimes.com

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pardons and commutations

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is the fourth person to have a sentence commuted by President Bush. A commutation lessens the severity of the punishment for a crime but does not change the underlying conviction. A pardon forgives the offense itself. Here’s a look at pardons and commutations of past presidents:

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*--* Petitions Pardons Commutations received granted granted Harry S. Truman, 1945-53 5,030 1,913 118 Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961 4,100 1,110 47 John F. Kennedy, 1961-64 1,749 472 100 Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964-1969 4,537 960 226 Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1975 2,591 863 60 Gerald E. Ford, 1975-77 1,527 382 22 Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981 2,627 534 29 Ronald Reagan, 1981-89 3,404 393 13 George H.W. Bush, 1989-93 1,466 74 3 William J. Clinton, 1993-2001 7,489 396 61 George W. Bush, 2001-2007 9,000 113 4

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Notable pardons and commutations

Nixon

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Jimmy Hoffa: Teamster boss’ 13-year sentence for jury tampering and mail fraud was commuted in 1972.

Ford

Nixon: Pardoned former president in 1974.

Tokyo Rose: American Iva Toguri, imprisoned for making treasonous radio broadcasts during World War II, was pardoned in one of Ford’s final acts in office in January 1977.

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Carter

G. Gordon Liddy: After refusing to testify in 1973 about the Watergate break-ins, Liddy served 4-1/2 years in prison; his sentence was commuted in 1977.

Patty Hearst: Heiress’ sentence was commuted in 1979, after she served almost two years of a seven-year sentence on a federal bank robbery conviction. She was pardoned by Clinton in 2001.

Reagan

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Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel: Sentence of former governor was commuted in 1981, after he was jailed on mail fraud and racketeering charges.

George H.W. Bush

Caspar Weinberger: Reagan Defense secretary was pardoned in 1992 along with five other Reagan officials before the Iran-Contra trial.

Clinton

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Roger Clinton: President’s younger half-brother was pardoned for a 1985 drug-related offense.

Marc Rich: Billionaire fugitive financier was pardoned in the 11th hour in 2001.

Dan Rostenkowski: Illinois congressman convicted of mail fraud in 1996, was pardoned in 2000.

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Sources: U.S. Justice Department, Jurist Legal Intelligence, Times reporting.

Graphics reporting by Julie Sheer

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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BUSH’S STATEMENT

‘I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive’

THE United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today rejected Lewis Libby’s request to remain free on bail while pursuing his appeals for the serious convictions of perjury and obstruction of justice. As a result, Mr. Libby will be required to turn himself over to the Bureau of Prisons to begin serving his prison sentence.

I have said throughout this process that it would not be appropriate to comment or intervene in this case until Mr. Libby’s appeals have been exhausted. But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, I believe it is now important to react to that decision.

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From the very beginning of the investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name, I made it clear to the White House staff and anyone serving in my administration that I expected full cooperation with the Justice Department. Dozens of White House staff and administration officials dutifully cooperated.

After the investigation was underway, the Justice Department appointed United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald as a special counsel in charge of the case. Mr. Fitzgerald is a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged.

This case has generated significant commentary and debate. Critics of the investigation have argued that a special counsel should not have been appointed, nor should the investigation have been pursued after the Justice Department learned who leaked Ms. Plame’s name to columnist Robert Novak. Furthermore, the critics point out that neither Mr. Libby nor anyone else has been charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act, which were the original subjects of the investigation. Finally, critics say the punishment does not fit the crime: Mr. Libby was a first-time offender with years of exceptional public service and was handed a harsh sentence based in part on allegations never presented to the jury.

Others point out that a jury of citizens weighed all the evidence and listened to all the testimony and found Mr. Libby guilty of perjury and obstructing justice. They argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable. They say that had Mr. Libby only told the truth, he would have never been indicted in the first place.

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Both critics and defenders of this investigation have made important points. I have made my own evaluation. In preparing for the decision I am announcing today, I have carefully weighed these arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case.

Mr. Libby was sentenced to 30 months of prison, two years of probation and a $250,000 fine. In making the sentencing decision, the district court rejected the advice of the probation office, which recommended a lesser sentence and the consideration of factors that could have led to a sentence of home confinement or probation.

I respect the jury’s verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby’s sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison.

My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged. His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect. The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant and private citizen will be long-lasting.

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The Constitution gives the president the power of clemency to be used when he deems it to be warranted. It is my judgment that a commutation of the prison term in Mr. Libby’s case is an appropriate exercise of this power.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

FITZGERALD’S STATEMENT

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‘It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand... as equals’

WE fully recognize that the Constitution provides that commutation decisions are a matter of presidential prerogative and we do not comment on the exercise of that prerogative.

We comment only on the statement in which the president termed the sentence imposed by the judge as “excessive.” The sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to the laws governing sentencings which occur every day throughout this country. In this case, an experienced federal judge considered extensive argument from the parties and then imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws.

It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals. That principle guided the judge during both the trial and the sentencing.

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Although the president’s decision eliminates Mr. Libby’s sentence of imprisonment, Mr. Libby remains convicted by a jury of serious felonies, and we will continue to seek to preserve those convictions through the appeals process.


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