Obama grants pardons to 17 people for nonviolent offenses

President Obama pardoned 17 people for nonviolent offenses Friday, a rare move that nearly doubled the number of pardons he has granted since taking office just over four years ago.

The individuals came from 13 states and were sentenced years if not decades ago for such minor federal offenses as falsely altering a U.S. money order, possessing an unregistered firearm, embezzling bank funds and acquiring food stamps without authorization.

Among those pardoned was a Massachusetts fishing magnate who pleaded guilty more than 20 years ago to laundering Canadian fish and selling them to the Defense Department as American fish.

Two Washington area residents were on the pardons list released Friday. Jamari Salleh of Alexandria, a former foreign service officer, had been sentenced for submitting phony lodging vouchers to the State Department. Robert Leroy Bebee of Rockville is an accomplished biotechnology inventor whose offense was concealing information about a felony.

The pardons, the first of Obama’s second term, are significant because this president so infrequently grants clemency.

Before Friday, Obama had granted 22 pardons; he had received petitions from 1,333 individuals, according to the data maintained by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. He granted his first batch of pardons, totaling nine, in December 2010, and granted eight in May 2011 and five in November 2011.

By contrast, former president George W. Bush received 2,498 petitions and granted 189 pardons, while former president Bill Clinton received 2,001 petitions and granted 396 pardons, according to the data.

Dafna Linzer of ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, reported last year that Obama has granted clemency at a lower rate than any modern president. Among the hundreds of people who have been denied pardons by Obama, Linzer reported, are a former brothel manager who helped the FBI bust a national prostitution ring and a retired sheriff who inadvertently helped a money launderer buy land.

Obama has come under criticism for not using more frequently his constitutional powers to pardon people for federal crimes. Some academics argue that the president could have more impact by pardoning younger people with more recent crimes.

“He’s not only being extremely stingy, but he’s giving pardons to people who arguably need them the very least,” said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois who blogs about presidential pardons. “The people who need pardons are people in their 30s and 40s and 50s who are trying to get jobs and raise families.”

Jeffrey Crouch, a political science professor at American University, said the pardons announced Friday mirror those Obama granted in his first term.

“The president’s pattern has been pretty much to go for the safe route — look for older offenses, nonviolent offenses — and using the pardon power in some cases just enough to not be criticized for not using it at all,” said Crouch, author of “The Presidential Pardon Power.”

The White House on Friday offered no information about why Obama selected these 17 individuals for pardons other than that he believes they will lead productive lives.

“As he has in past years, the president granted these individuals clemency because they have demonstrated genuine remorse and a strong commitment to being law-abiding, productive citizens and active members of their communities,” White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.

Among those pardoned was James A. Bordinaro, a former general manager of Empire Fish, who served 12 months in prison and paid a $55,000 fine for a scheme to illegally launder Canadian fish.

Bordinaro, of Gloucester, Mass., was among a half dozen New England fishing industry executives who pleaded guilty to such scams, according to a 1991 report by the Boston Globe. They were charged with falsifying documents in their contracts with the Department of Defense certifying that Canadian fish were caught by U.S. fishermen in U.S. waters, a requirement of government contracts, according to the Globe.

Last year, members of the Bordinaro family introduced Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei at a fishing-themed campaign event at the docks in downtown Gloucester.

In Alexandria, meanwhile, Salleh’s federal conviction dates to 1989. Salleh was a career foreign service officer who was caught, and pleaded guilty to, submitting $7,650 in phony lodging vouchers to the State Department. She was given a three-year suspended sentence, placed on four years of probation, fined $5,000 and ordered to pay $5,900 restitution.

The State Department then tried to fire her. Salleh appealed to the Foreign Service Grievance Board, saying that her offense stemmed from her alcoholism, and she was reinstated, court records show. The State Department then turned to the federal courts to reverse the grievance board, but two courts upheld the board and Salleh continued to work for State for many years. Other people granted clemency faced similarly modest sentences. Alfor Sharkey, of Omaha, was sentenced for unauthorized acquisition of food stamps. Sharkey was given three years of probation with 100 hours of community service and $2,570 restitution.

Tom Jackman, Carol D. Leonnig and Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.

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Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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