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Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites

Posted on Dec 4, 2011
AP / Charles Dharapak

By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica

(Page 4)

Article II of the Constitution gives presidents the authority to “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.” It was among the few royal powers carried over from the British monarchy. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 74 that the president would be the best “dispenser of the mercy of government.” Groups of men, he argued, were too easily swayed by popular passions.

In 1893, Grover Cleveland issued an executive order delegating the paperwork on pardons to a single office inside the Justice Department. Today, the office employs a lead pardon attorney, a deputy and four additional lawyers. They review hundreds of pardon applications a year.

Leggett and Armstead’s applications reached Washington just as this office gained more clout than it ever had.

The reason could be traced to one of President Bill Clinton’s last acts, his pardon of Marc Rich. The decision became a scandal after reports that Rich’s former wife, a big Democratic donor, gave $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library. In congressional hearings that followed, it emerged that Eric H. Holder Jr., then deputy attorney general, had encouraged Rich’s attorneys to apply directly to the White House.


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In response, the incoming Bush administration vowed that the pardons office would vet every applicant.

The office lists on its Web site a five-point test for applicants. The first test is straightforward: Candidates must wait five years after completion of their sentences before applying.

Next, lawyers consider the “conduct, character and reputation” of applicants after they served their sentences. The third point is the need of the applicant, and the fourth is the opinion of prosecutors and judges.

The final point is acceptance of responsibility for their crimes, remorse and atonement.

Pardons office lawyers assess whether applicants lead what Adams called “stable” lives. An applicant who had been divorced would give pause. Owing excessive debt to credit card companies or banks—as many Americans do—could also be a red flag.

“A person in debt is always in some risk of doing something inappropriate to get out of it,” Adams said. “It’s only natural for the office to be a little cautious.”

A review of pardons cases found that some applicants were rejected because they had filed for bankruptcy in the years after their conviction or were unemployed, a situation that is not unusual for convicted criminals, who often have trouble rebuilding their lives.

But Bush pardoned white applicants who had filed for bankruptcies, had driven drunk or had illegally possessed firearms. Two successful applicants lied to the FBI during the background checks that are part of the application process.

A Choke Point

By Bush’s second term, it was clear that putting decisions in the hands of the pardons office had dramatically slowed the flow of pardons. Elected as a “compassionate conservative,” Bush was on pace to become the least-forgiving two-term president in history.

In 2006, White House Counsel Harriet Miers became so frustrated with the paucity of recommended candidates that she met with Adams and his boss, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.

Adams said he told Miers that if she wanted more recommendations, he would need more staff. Adams said he did not get any extra help. Nothing changed.

“It became very frustrating, because we repeatedly asked the office for more favorable recommendations for the president to consider,” said Fielding, who was Bush’s last White House counsel. “But all we got were more recommendations for denials.”

In 2007, the pardons office was hit with its own scandal.

Adams had opposed a pardon for Chibueze Okorie, a Nigerian-born minister beloved by his Brooklyn church. Okorie faced deportation because of a 1992 conviction for possessing heroin with intent to distribute.

“This might sound racist,” Adams told colleagues, according to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, but Okorie is “about as honest as you could expect for a Nigerian. Unfortunately, that’s not very honest.”

When asked by investigators in the inspector general’s office to explain his remarks, Adams said that Nigerian immigrants “commit more crimes than other people” and that an applicant’s nationality is “an important consideration” in pardons, according to the report. “It’s one the White House wants to know about,” Adams told investigators.

The inspector general’s office disagreed.

“We believe that Adams’ comments—and his use of nationality in the decision-making process—were inappropriate,” the report concluded. “We were extremely troubled by Adams’ belief that an applicant’s ‘ethnic background’ was something that should be an ‘important consideration’ in a pardon decision.”

Adams said his comments about Okorie were focused on his ethnicity, not his race, and were taken out of context by the inspector general’s office.

Adams left his post and retired. He was replaced in April 2008 by Rodgers, a former military judge who had prosecuted major drug crimes for the Justice Department’s criminal division. Shortly after taking over, Rodgers hired the office’s first African American staff attorney.

As the Bush presidency drew to a close, the inability to grant more pardons continued to vex White House officials. Throughout 2008, the White House sent e-mails to the pardons office asking for more candidates. White House lawyers repeatedly asked the office to reconsider cases in which it had recommended denials.

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By ardee, December 8, 2011 at 5:47 am Link to this comment

It bears repetition:

tomstedham, December 7 at 4:22 pm

Email you? I have to take a hot shower just reading your screed here.

Report this

By tomstedham, December 8, 2011 at 5:22 am Link to this comment


Awwww.,.. Is that the best you have? I have
“screed”??? Sad. I didn’t insult anyone. I simply
pointed out that many white people don’t consider
members of several ethic minority groups to be
“white”, especially “Jews”... I notice that you chose
not to address that.
Jerry Seinfeld is just as “not white” as Salma Hayek.
A rich white man does not run the Federal Reserve,
for example. And when Clinton pardoned Marc Rich,
that wasn’t a rich white guy getting a pardon.
When you see “white man” it’s important to dig a
little deeper, because sometimes… it’s not a
“white” man at all.

Report this

By ardee, December 8, 2011 at 3:59 am Link to this comment

tomstedham, December 7 at 4:22 pm

Email you? I have to take a hot shower just reading your screed here.

Report this

By tomstedham, December 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

I really don’t want to get into a detailed discussion
of “who’s not white” on this webpage. Feel free to
email me.
When I said “most of us”, I was using shorthand to
refer to “most of us white people who feel that Jews
aren’t white”...
To me, Jerry Seinfeld isn’t “white”, nor is Barbara
Streisand, or Ben Bernanke or Paul Wolfowitz.
Of course, neither is Kim Kardashian, Ricky Martin or
Salma Hayek. I hope you can see my point.
But my original point is that when “white people” are
blamed, many times those people aren’t actually
White is usually a shorthand for WASP, or redneck,
etc. Jews, by very definition, aren’t “WASP”...

Report this

By ardee, December 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm Link to this comment

Isaac Toussie is Jewish. Most of us don’t consider that to be “white”.

Most of whom?

Report this

By vince remus, December 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm Link to this comment

I agree with the arguments of everyone who posted.
How can we ensure future pardons are not tainted by the
color of the skin, race, religion or ethnicity?

We all have our prejudices but people who are truly in
favor of social justice must take a stand against
bigotry and racism, no matter the target.

Report this

By Markos, December 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have always thought these segregated groups such as NAACP, Hispanics, Asians are ridiculous.  Poverty touches everyone and NO one has a separate problem and without taking into account strategies of how people solve problems, you lessen your options.  How can groups that scream diversity allow lack of diversity in their own group?  Stupid and arrogant
Divide and conquer

No wonder more whites get to the front of the line, its the buddy system and minorities need to quit joining these groups and make peace with the beast, otherwise they don’t even know who you are.

Report this
Samson's avatar

By Samson, December 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment

The one thing we know for sure is that its all about
money.  Its not about race or skin color. If you want
a presidential pardon, make big contributions.  We
saw that quite clearly at the end of the Clinton
years.  Its still undoubtedly true, even though the
spotlight moved off the process along with the chaser
of devils in blue dresses.

Its also true that the people with the money to buy
these pardons are more likely to be white than any
other color.  That’s history.  But no president is
going to turn down cash based on skin color.  Leonard
Peltier is still in prison because he’s poor, not
because he’s Indian.  A casino owner could get a
pardon if he had the cash, even if he’s Indian.

Report this

By Tom Stedham, December 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

They aren’t all “white”...
Isaac Toussie is Jewish. Most of us don’t consider
that to be “white”. Why didn’t you break the pardons
down by ethnicity? If you are using “Hispanic” as a
category, then “Jewish” is just as valid.

But the large numbers would have opened up a tricky
politically-incorrect can of worms, wouldn’t it? You
certainly couldn’t use a headline like:
“Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily
Favors Whites… and Jews”

Report this

By ardee, December 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment

No! Really! A two part article to discuss the blatantly obvious?

Report this

By John Poole, December 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shouldn’t the heading be:  “.....heavily favors sleazy people regardless of race”.

Report this

By felicity, December 4, 2011 at 11:41 am Link to this comment

No surprise here.  A typical white family ‘holds’ one
dollar:  A typical black family ‘holds’ 10 cents.  It’s
a sorry fact that, today, money calls the ‘shots’ in

Report this
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