Neither Kingston nor any of the lawmakers who received campaign contributions voluntarily disclosed the donations in their letters to the pardons office.
For many members of Congress, a letter to the pardon lawyer is a routine constituent service. Pardons restore the right to own a firearm, sit on a jury or vote. Because felons are often denied professional licenses, a pardon can open the door to a new job or career advancement.
Bush began his presidency determined to prevent political interference in the granting of pardons. He had just witnessed a powerful example of how money and connections could mar the process: President Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated large sums to the Clinton Presidential Library and the Democratic National Committee. Bush decided to rely more on career officials in the Justice Department’s tiny pardons office.
Pardon applicants face extensive scrutiny. Officials review their personal, professional, marital and financial history. FBI agents interview friends and associates, even former spouses, and scour criminal records for offenses that applicants might have omitted. The Justice Department often solicits views from the sentencing judge and prosecutor.
But no one takes note of campaign contributions made to members of Congress or other public officials writing in support of applicants. Some officials say this is by design, that it would be inappropriate for the White House or the Justice Department to research an applicant’s political affiliation or history of donations.
“I truly did not want to know about campaign contributions and never allowed anyone on my staff to look at it,” Adams said, “because if you find that someone gave money, or didn’t give money, then you can’t have someone else wonder if that’s part of the reason why they were recommended for a pardon or denied. You just can’t go there.”
Congressional support does not ensure a pardon. In fact, the vast majority of applicants with congressional support failed, according to ProPublica’s review of letters from members of Congress to the Justice Department and the White House. About 10 percent of Bush’s 189 pardons went to people with congressional support.
“If a congressman called, you would listen to them,” said Kenneth Lee, a former associate White House counsel who reviewed pardon cases during Bush’s second term. “Sometimes it was a prominent politician. Other times it was an anguished mother with a son in prison. It helped to the extent that I would open the file and look again, but rarely did it add useful information.”
Almost from their first day in office, lawyers in the Obama White House began receiving calls from members of Congress advocating pardons.