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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 5)

On Sept. 16, 2008, Lee, the associate White House counsel, asked about two pending applicants whose attorneys had contacted the White House.

“As noted previously, we are hoping to get as many clemency recommendations as possible over the next few months,” Lee wrote. “To the extent that these two petitions may be ‘easy’ cases (and I defer to you on that question), it would be helpful if these and other ‘easy’ cases are given priority.”

Rodgers forwarded the e-mail to a staff attorney with a warning to ignore anything in Lee’s note that “could be construed as armchair quarterbacking.”

With no more than 30 recommendations from the pardons office by the fall, the White House pushed to reverse two denials, Lee and others said in interviews. Then it did something Bush had vowed to avoid, taking up a pardon application from a felon whose case had not been reviewed by the pardon attorney.


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Isaac Toussie, a New York developer and Republican political donor, pleaded guilty in 2001 and 2002 to mail fraud and a real estate scheme in which false documents had been submitted to allow low-income buyers to obtain insured mortgages from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Toussie served five months in prison, another five months of home detention and three years of supervised release. He also paid a $10,000 fine.

Toussie had not waited the requisite five years, but one of his attorneys, Bradford Berenson, had been an associate White House counsel during Bush’s first term. Berenson took Toussie’s case directly to the White House—and it worked. On Dec. 23, 2008, Toussie’s name was on the final list of pardons granted by Bush.

That action sparked fury among hundreds of New Yorkers who were involved at the time in a civil litigation suit against the Toussie family over a second real estate project.

After eight years of caution on pardons, Bush had stumbled. On Dec. 24, 2008—four weeks before Obama’s inauguration—Bush became the first president to announce withdrawal of a pardon.

Bush left office having denied more than twice as many applicants as Clinton. Richard Nixon pardoned more people in a single year than Bush pardoned during two full terms.

Second Chance

In the final hour of his presidency, Bush confided to Obama his deep frustrations with the pardon process. In the limousine ride the two men shared up Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, Bush offered his successor this piece of advice: “Announce a pardon policy early on and stick to it.”

Bush wrote in his memoir that he had been besieged by last-minute pardon requests from politically connected people who did not go through the pardons office.

“At first I was frustrated,” he wrote. “Then I was disgusted. I came to see massive injustice in the system. If you had connections to the President, you could insert your case into the last-minute frenzy. Otherwise, you had to wait for the Justice Department to conduct a review and make a recommendation.”

Bush resolved to rebuff the personal requests.

The incoming administration needed little prodding on this issue. Obama’s top legal advisers already were convinced that the pardon system put the poor at a disadvantage. Gregory Craig, who would become Obama’s White House counsel, said he began raising the possibility of reform during the transition.

Craig said pardons were “clearly much more available to people with economic means than those without.”

Working with then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, Craig developed a plan to take the vetting of pardon applicants away from career prosecutors.

“I couldn’t completely understand the standards being applied by the pardons office,” Ogden said in an interview. “They seemed very subjective in some cases, and I thought the standards should come from the president, not from the pardons office.”

Craig said he believes pardon applications should be sifted by an independent commission of former judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and representatives of faith-based groups. The commission would make recommendations directly to the president.

Officials envisioned a process in which the president would announce decisions quarterly instead of the traditional grants at Thanksgiving and Christmas. A team of lawyers also suggested that the president explain his decisions, to build confidence in the process and encourage people to apply.

Officials were struck by comparisons between the federal system and those of the states. Depending on the state, pardons can be granted by governors, legislatures or state pardon boards. During the period in which Bush pardoned 189 people, Pennsylvania pardoned more than 1,000.

Several states have adopted the practice of explaining their decisions. Virginia issues public notices praising specific aspects of an applicant’s rehabilitation.

Obama officials believed changes in the pardon system could be made by executive order. But two years later, pardon reform efforts were dead. The effort faded away as its key proponents, Ogden and Craig, left the administration.

“We just never got there before I left,” said Ogden, who resigned in 2010.

The pardons office continues to function much as it did under Bush, with Obama pardoning only applicants recommended by the office. Obama has denied 1,019 pardon requests, more than Clinton denied during his two terms.

Post researcher Julie Tate and ProPublica researchers Liz Day and Robin Resaut contributed to this report.

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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.

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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

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