Federal Agencies Opposed Leniency for 16 Militants

August 27, 1999 - The New York Times - DAVID JOHNSTON

WASHINGTON -- A wide range of Federal law-enforcement agencies that were asked to review a clemency petition filed by imprisoned members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group unanimously opposed any leniency in the weeks before President Clinton offered to commute the sentences of 16 members of the militant organization, officials said Thursday.

The clemency petition was flatly opposed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Prisons and United States Attorneys in Illinois and Connecticut, the officials said.

Though their opposition was mentioned in a final report from the Justice Department to the White House, that report made no specific recommendation, as such reports often do. Instead, the report on the 16 members of the militant Puerto Rican independence group known as the FALN, for Armed Forces of National Liberation, contained what law-enforcement officials said was a more carefully worded analysis that presented the President with multiple options for each prisoner, from unconditional release to no leniency whatsoever.

The officials said that presenting the White House with a multiple-choice format was highly unusual for the highly confidential clemency reports, and suggested a diversity of views within law-enforcement agencies that did not exist. The officials, who said they were troubled by the decision, acknowledged that they had no evidence that anyone at the Justice Department or the White House had intentionally sought to distort the decision-making process.

Jim Kennedy, a White House spokesman, said Thursday that he would not discuss the details of communications between the Justice Department and the White House, but added that Charles F. C.

Ruff, then the White House counsel, was well aware of the views of law-enforcement agencies and had faithfully presented those views to Clinton.

"The President and his counsel fully understood the range of views on this issue and were not deprived of any advice they needed," Kennedy said.

Federal law-enforcement officials have not publicly addressed the issue, but have bitterly complained in private about the President's Aug. 11 decision, which one senior official said left law-enforcement officials "stupefied" and "outraged" by the conditional offer of clemency.

Thursday, Ruff acknowledged having had extensive discussions with lawyers in the Deputy Attorney General's office at the Justice Department. He would not discuss the conversations in detail, but said "nothing out of the ordinary" happened.

Most of the 16 members of the group were convicted of crimes in a series of cases that were brought in the 1970's. The crimes included possession of unregistered firearms, interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle, interference with interstate commerce by violence and interstate transportation of firearms with intent to commit a crime. None were specifically linked to crimes that resulted in deaths or injuries.

Even so, the FALN members received sentences of 50 or more years in prison, and most have already served more than 19 years.

Under Clinton's offer, 11 would be eligible for immediate release from prison and 2 would have to serve more time before being eligible for release. Three others who have already been released from prison would have fines reduced.

But the President's terms are conditional. The imprisoned members of the group must agree to the request that their sentences be commuted, agree to cooperate with parole officials and renounce violence for any purpose. So far, none of the 16 have accepted the Presidential offer.

In their recommendations, F.B.I. officials complained about granting leniency to members of a militant group that had claimed responsibility for terrorist acts at a time when the United States was engaged in a worldwide battle against terrorism. Officials at the Bureau of Prisons, who monitor the FALN members' visits, telephone calls and letters, concluded that if they were released from prison, they might resume their criminal behavior even after renouncing it.

Two United States Attorneys who were consulted both recommended against leniency. They are Scott R. Lassar in Chicago, where 12 of the prisoners were convicted, and Stephen C. Robinson in New Haven, where four members of the group were convicted of crimes related to an armored car robbery. Today, officials in both offices declined to discuss the matter.

Nevertheless, the power to grant commutations rests exclusively with the President, and the White House has not always accepted the Justice Department's recommendations. In pardons, commutations and clemency issues, the department and its agencies play only an advisory role.

Thousands of people signed a petition and lobbied for the prisoners' release, among them former President Jimmy Carter and prominent human rights leaders like Desmond M. Tutu of South Africa, the Nobel Laureate, and Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Several Democratic lawmakers from New York also urged Clinton to release the 16 prisoners, including Representatives Jose E. Serrano, Charles B. Rangel, Nydia M. Velzquez and Eliot L. Engel. Among their arguments are that the prison terms were excessive and that the prisoners had already served long sentences.

Still, it is highly unusual for the President to reject the unanimous recommendation of law-enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., particularly in a case related to a group responsible for bombings that killed six people and maimed dozens of others, including several New York City police officers.

The clemency offer has been criticized by politicians like Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, who has asked Clinton to rescind it, and by Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, a Democrat who rarely criticizes the White House.

Some Republicans have criticized Clinton on the ground that the clemency offer appeared to be an effort to rally support among the large population of Hispanic voters in New York as Hillary Rodham Clinton moves closer to entering the race there for the Senate. But White House officials have denied that the decision was an effort to help her, saying the deliberations began before she considered running.

Jan Susler, the Chicago-based lawyer for the imprisoned Puerto Ricans, said today that her clients wanted to reach a unified decision but were dispersed at 11 different Federal prisons.

She said they had carefully considered the offer but "have a lot of problems with the proposals," partly because of the conditional nature of the offer, which could restrict their activities out of prison, including their ability to contact one another.

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