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Shades of Mercy: Presidential Forgiveness Heavily Favors Whites
Posted on Dec 4, 2011
By Dafna Linzer & Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica
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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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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