One-third of Clinton pardons skirted review

Times Staff Writers

A third of those granted last-minute pardons or commutations by President Clinton last month skirted the normal Justice Department review process and instead appealed directly to the White House in the waning days of his presidency.

According to documents obtained Wednesday, 47 people -- nearly twice as many as the two dozen originally reported -- were granted presidential relief without applications first being fully examined by the Justice Department's pardon attorney's office.

Most of them never filed normal clemency applications with the Justice Department. Others had been denied pardons by Clinton earlier or simply were not qualified for a pardon under Justice Department rules.

Also Wednesday, officials of a key House oversight committee investigating the pardons said they have been unable to locate written files supporting the 47 pardon requests because the new Justice Department under President Bush does not have them.

Instead, that paperwork -- if it exists -- may have been boxed up and sent to Little Rock, Ark., for inclusion in Clinton's office or presidential library.

The twilight clemency action by Clinton is continuing to stir questions about whether the outgoing president was dispensing favors to donors or well-connected lawyers and friends when he used one of the high office's most prized powers to grant 140 clemencies on his last day in office.

It is unclear whether other presidents have pardoned as many individuals whose applications were not first reviewed by the Justice Department. And the Clinton White House has not fully explained why the president acted without waiting for Justice Department approval.

Several legal experts and others who have studied presidential pardons said Clinton's diversion from the traditional process breeds cynicism and raises concerns about how future presidents may use the pardon system to play favorites.

They do not, however, challenge a president's authority to pardon and commute sentences as seen fit under the office's unchecked constitutional mandate.

"It's a presidential prerogative that can't be checked by Congress," said Ronald Allen, an expert on criminal and constitutional law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. "The internal procedures of Justice don't bind the hands of the president -- and in a real sense shouldn't."

But Allen and others noted that those Justice Department procedures "are designed to engage these cases and act as a break against the abuse of the pardon process in the exact, immature way that has happened."

House committee continues inquiry

Today, the House Government Reform Committee convenes a hearing on another pardon granted by Clinton that has raised concerns.

In that case, Clinton pardoned longtime tax-evasion fugitive Marc Rich after a personal session with Rich's attorney, former Clinton counsel Jack Quinn.

The Rich pardon request had been stalled for some time because of strong opposition by prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in New York.

Mark Corallo, a committee spokesman, said the panel also will raise questions about the 47 cases that sidestepped the normal process.

"The committee is deeply concerned by this unfortunate situation, and we intend to look into it," he said.

"We've asked the Justice Department to provide the paperwork for the other 47. But we have not received a response yet.

"The paperwork should have gone to the Justice Department, but they're saying they haven't received it yet. And that is what all of our lawyers are looking into," Corallo said.

"Somebody better find it."

Chris Watney, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to release any information about the case files that normally would have been a part of the pardon requests. She said those are private documents and are not subject to public dissemination.

She did, however, release the one-page Official Grant of Clemency certificates that Clinton approved for most of the 140 pardons or commutations that he issued on Jan. 20.

Those documents show only who was granted relief and for what specific offense. They shed no light on whether Clinton may have bowed to any outside political, legal or other influence.

Clinton spokesman Jake Siewert could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Tuesday, he suggested that the Clinton team itself does not know the details of how the process was handled at the last minute.

He suggested that things were chaotic on Clinton's last day and said that pardon-related paperwork may have been shipped with cartons of other Clinton papers to Little Rock.

"It's been very hard to piece together," he said.

Of the 47 cases that bypassed the Justice Department:

  • Thirty of those pardoned never filed clemency applications with the department.

    Some of them had obvious Clinton connections -- such as his brother, Roger Clinton, pardoned for his 1985 drug conviction; Whitewater figure Susan McDougal; and Henry G. Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Clinton.

    In addition to McDougal and Roger Clinton, 16 more of the 140 pardoned had ties to Clinton's home state of Arkansas. They had been convicted on charges including bank fraud, marijuana and cocaine sales, and illegal transportation of wildlife.

    Two Arkansas men, Arthur and David Borel, were absolved of rolling back a vehicle odometer.
  • An additional 14 people previously had filed clemency applications with the Justice Department. But their petitions had been denied by Clinton in December 1998 and were no longer pending at the Justice Department as Clinton approached the end of his term.

    Among them were Rubye Lee Gordon, a Tampa, Fla., woman convicted of forging Treasury checks; Frank and Silvia Martinez, a Texas couple convicted of passing false documents to the Immigration and Naturalization Service; and Howard Riddle, a Colorado man convicted of receiving illegally imported animal skins.
  • Two others had filed pardon applications with the Justice Department. But they were not eligible to apply because of a provision in the Rules Governing Petitions for Executive Clemency.

It requires a five-year waiting period from the date of conviction or release from prison, whichever is later, before a person is eligible to file a clemency application.

The Justice Department considered their petitions as requests for waivers of the five-year rule but denied them.

William D. Fugazy Sr. of Harrison, N.Y., a onetime limousine company executive, was granted a pardon for his 1997 conviction for perjury in a bankruptcy proceeding. One of his main sponsors was Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee and the man generally credited with first urging then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for the Senate from New York.

And Eloida Candelaria was pardoned for giving false information in registering to vote in New Mexico in 1992.

  • The final pardon recipient is Louis Goldstein. A Las Vegas resident, Goldstein was convicted of mail fraud in 1985. Goldstein's clemency application was pending at the Justice Department when Clinton pardoned him, but officials there had not approved it.

'A Power That Can Be Abused'

Legal ethicist Stephen Gillers, vice dean at New York University's School of Law, said that presidential pardons are no longer an obscure issue in the wake of Clinton's actions, as "we've learned that it is a power that can be abused. A president who ignores Justice and the views of the victims and law enforcement simply encourages public distrust and cynicism."

Clinton may have unwittingly and ironically helped to set up public outrage over pardons by using his pardon powers so sparingly over most of his eight-year term, said Mark Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, an activist criminal justice group in Washington.

"Compared to previous presidents," Mauer said, "Clinton made little use of it. ... As a consequence, there was a backlog of deserving cases that had to be acted on in too short a period of time.

"Some (of the cases diverted from Justice) may be a deliberate end run, some may have been simply the press of time and could well be seen as legitimate cases after you examine all the facts. But by rushing them in at the end he unfortunately ended up raising questions about them all."

Copyright © 2018, CT Now