Michele Bachmann backed donor’s pardon request — but then he was charged anew

December 4, 2011

Long before Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) set her sights on the White House, she became embroiled in a donor’s request for a presidential pardon.

For seven years, the Justice Department’s pardons office had vacillated on whether to recommend a pardon to Frank Vennes Jr., who was caught in an Internal Revenue Service sting in Minnesota in 1986. Vennes, then 29, was sentenced to three years in prison for money laundering and fined $100,000. He received two additional years for firearms- and cocaine-related offenses.

After he left prison, Vennes seemed to remake his life. He set up a finance company and became religious, philanthropic and well connected.

In December 2002, even before he had been sworn in as the junior senator from Minnesota, Republican Norm Coleman wrote to the White House urging a pardon for Vennes, whose family had contributed $3,000 to Coleman’s campaign.

One month later, the pardons office delivered a favorable recommendation.

But Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general at the time, was not persuaded. Vennes had been divorced and had repeated speeding violations. In a process that values marital stability and good character, Vennes seemed to have strikes against him.

Thompson sent the case back to Roger Adams, who ran the pardons office, according to internal Justice Department records. Coleman, whose political action committee had received an additional $5,000 from Vennes, pressed anew, writing to Adams on Dec. 3, 2004.

“I personally know Frank Vennes and find him to be trustworthy, extremely dedicated to his community and passionate about serving others less fortunate than himself, and a talented, successful businessman,” Coleman wrote. “I firmly believe he has earned the opportunity to be granted this pardon.”

Four months later, Adams tried again, offering a positive recommendation for Vennes to Thompson’s successor, James B. Comey. This time, Comey ordered Adams outright to change the recommendation to a denial.

The denial sat for more than a year in the White House counsel’s office, along with a backlog of hundreds of other pardon cases.

Then, in December 2007, Bachmann voiced her support for Vennes. He and his family had been major donors to the freshman Republican, giving more than $26,000 to her campaign and political action committee. Six months later, Vennes and his wife gave an additional $9,000 to the congresswoman, according to campaign finance records.

In a letter to the pardons office, Bachmann extolled Vennes’s charity work and urged forgiveness.

“Knowing that pardons have been decreasingly granted, I am asking that courage be mustered to do justice” for Vennes, Bachmann wrote. She did not mention that Vennes and his family were contributors to her campaign.

The White House asked for a new review. In March 2008, the pardons office asked the FBI to run a limited check of Vennes’s driving record to make sure there were no new infractions, according to an internal Justice Department memo. Satisfied, the office — then under the interim leadership of Adams’s longtime deputy Helen Bollwerk — again recommended Vennes for a pardon. Writing glowingly of his “outstanding rehabilitation,” Mark Filip, who was deputy attorney general at the time, signed the recommendation and sent it to the White House.

As the White House considered pardoning Vennes in the fall of 2008, federal agents raided his home and offices. The FBI was searching for evidence that he and an associate were participating in a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

One week later, Bachmann withdrew her support for Vennes.

“Regrettably, it now appears that I may have too hastily accepted his claims of redemption and I must withdraw my previous letter,” she wrote to the pardons office. Contacted recently, Bachmann’s press secretary, Becky Rogness, said Bachmann “has remained disassociated from Mr. Vennes.”

Today, Coleman is a lawyer in Washington. He said in an e-mail that he “was greatly moved” by Vennes’s work with teen and adult addicts and by his “Christian conversion.” But Coleman added: “If I had known then what I now know to be the case about Mr. Vennes, and the pain he has caused to so many people, I would not have supported his request for a pardon.”

Vennes was charged this year with money laundering and multiple counts of fraud. The FBI said in July that Vennes and his partners were raising money to invest in a company they claimed was financing the purchase of electronics.

“In truth, however, no merchandise was bought or resold,” the FBI said.

His trial is scheduled to begin next spring.

dafna.linzer@propublica.org, @DafnaLinzer

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