Pardons on the Sly

NY Times - January 25, 2001

Anger over Bill Clinton's abuse of the pardoning process mounted yesterday, as well it should. This page has criticized Mr. Clinton for his last- minute pardon of the fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich. But a broader look at Mr. Clinton's final pardon list makes clear that the outrage extends well beyond the undeserved leniency for Mr. Rich. We are particularly troubled by the numerous instances in which Mr. Clinton granted pardons or commutations without proper consultation with federal prosecutors, often to reward friends or political allies or gain future political advantage.

Consider, for example, Mr. Clinton's decision to commute the sentences of four Hasidic men from New Square, N.Y., who were in prison for defrauding the government by inventing a fictitious religious school and using it to attract millions in government aid. The commutations were granted after Mr. Clinton and his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, met privately in December with supporters of the men, whose politically active sect had overwhelmingly backed Mrs. Clinton in her victorious Senate campaign. Mrs. Clinton denies any responsibility for the president's commutation decision and denies even knowing that commutation would be discussed. But her presence at the meeting surely underscores her interest in accommodating these constituents. The United States attorney in New York, Mary Jo White, vigorously opposed the commutations, which she learned about only at the last minute.

Politics rather than a careful weighing of the merits also appears to have been the deciding factor in Mr. Clinton's pardon of Edward Downe Jr., a contributor to Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats, who pleaded guilty in the early 1990's to insider trading and was sentenced to probation and stiff fines. Prosecutors in Ms. White's office learned of the pardon decision last Friday too late to effectively register their objections. Similarly, William Fugazy, a confidant of several politicians, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, and a prominent figure in civic affairs, was granted a pardon for his perjury in a bankruptcy proceeding over Ms. White's objections. Mr. Fugazy's lawyer said he had successfully sought help from an unnamed political figure to carry his request to the White House.

In the same vein, Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, served as a courier who forwarded pardon information to the White House for Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the Weather Underground serving a lengthy sentence for her role in an explosives and weapons case. Mr. Nadler says he took no position on the pardon, which was opposed by Ms. White's office.

Of course, some people close to the president had no need for special access to gain his attention. Mr. Clinton's pardons of his brother, Roger Clinton, who served time years ago on cocaine charges, and of Susan McDougal, who went to jail for refusing to answer questions about Mr. Clinton's Whitewater dealings, were clear distortions of the pardoning process to help friends and family.

The president's power to grant pardons is absolute, and it is meant to correct injustices or perform a civic good. But the properly intense furor over Mr. Clinton's pardon of Mr. Rich led Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, to suggest that Congress might need to review the president's unilateral power to dispense pardons. That seems an unnecessary assault on a fundamental constitutional power. But such Congressional concern should be a signal to future chief executives that in this matter, as in other aspects of presidential judgment, Mr. Clinton is not a role model to follow. President Bush can help restore trust in this important presidential responsibility by committing himself to abide by the traditional process of Justice Department review before a pardon is granted.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page