Records Show Puerto Ricans Got U.S. Help With Clemency

October 21, 1999 - The New York Times - Front Page - Neil A. Lewis

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department took extraordinary steps to enhance the chances of clemency for a group of imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists after receiving regular expressions of interest from the White House, according to documents released Wednesday. In one instance, the department's top officials repeatedly urged the prisoners' supporters in Congress to persuade them to fashion a statement of repentance to help their chances of release.

The documents released at a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee also show that the Puerto Rican nationalists did not apply for clemency personally, as is usually required, but department officials processed an application anyway. Under department regulations, a personal application is usually required to start the process, because such a move is taken as a sign of remorse for the criminal acts.

The documents suggest that the prisoners did not apply for clemency themselves as a symbolic demonstration of their political credo that they have not accepted the authority of the U.S. government. Department officials acknowledged in internal memos that it was highly unusual even to consider clemency in cases in which the prisoners themselves declined to file their own applications.

President Clinton offered clemency to 16 of the prisoners on Aug. 11 after supporters applied on their behalf. The prisoners were convicted of crimes on behalf of the F.A.L.N., a militant Puerto Rican independence group, more than two decades ago.

The details and sequence of events leading up to Clinton's clemency offer have remained murky because the White House and Justice Department have declined to release much information, citing executive privilege. Because the Constitution explicitly gives the president the sole authority to issue pardons, administration lawyers have argued that the president's discussions with subordinates over the issue of clemency for the Puerto Rican prisoners is privileged and need not be disclosed.

But the documents disclosed Wednesday give a partial picture of the unusual way in which the issue was handled. Applications for clemency are typically generated when a prisoner presses the issue. In this case, it appears that the White House and Justice Department were interested in keeping the issue of clemency alive even after the department's pardon attorney recommended that clemency be denied.

A letter in July 1997 from Margaret C. Love, the pardon attorney, to White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff showed that she recommended against clemency. But her successor, Roger Adams, filed a second report this year that contained no explicit recommendation for the president, as such reports usually do, but instead offered Clinton a range of options, law-enforcement officials have said.

The committee's documents show that Adams and Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general, met with Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Jose Serrano and Nydia Velasquez, both of New York, on Nov. 5, 1997, to discuss the case of the Puerto Rican inmates. According to Adams' notes, Holder told the three members of Congress that because the prisoners had not applied for clemency themselves, this could be taken that they were not repentant and he suggested that a statement expressing some remorse might help their chances.

On April 9, 1998, according to Adams' notes, he contacted a staff aide to Gutierrez and said the department had not received any statement of remorse. The notes show that Adams counseled the staff aide as to how the statement should be worded for maximum effect and he added that the department's new report would await the statement.

In the end, the prisoners provided a long ambiguous statement, with no explicit statement of regret. While some people had been hurt, the statement said, "innocent victims were on all sides."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is the Judiciary Committee chairman, also noted that just a month after Clinton's clemency offer, Attorney General Janet Reno said in a report that the nationalist groups the prisoners had been aligned with posed an "ongoing threat" to national security.

"Factors which increase the present threat from these groups include ... the impending release from prisons of members of these groups jailed for prior violence," Reno wrote in the Justice Department's Five Year Interagency Counterterrorism and Technology Crime Plan published last month and made public at Wednesday's hearing.

The F.B.I. and the federal prosecutors in Illinois and Connecticut, where many of the convictions had been obtained, flatly recommended that the president refuse clemency. After he did so over their objections, Clinton was widely criticized by law enforcement groups, families of the victims of some of the crimes committed by the F.A.L.N. and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

Clinton denied speculation that he had granted clemency to help the candidacy of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely Democratic candidate for the senate from New York, which has a large Puerto Rican voting population.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was the only Democrat to appear at the hearing. After saying he was disturbed by the decision to grant clemency but that it was Clinton's prerogative, Leahy departed leaving the Republicans to take turns grilling the two Justice Department witnesses, Holder and Adams.

See also:
  • Clemency For Pollard

  • Return to Senate Race page