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Awaiting New Pardon Attorney: Backlog, and Chance to Make Mark

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In three decades of government service, Ronald L. Rodgers has gathered intelligence to prosecute drug rings and has navigated international tensions as a military judge.

But his latest assignment may be his biggest challenge yet.

President Bush named Rodgers last month to head the Justice Department's pardon office, a unit that has suffered under substantial backlogs after its previous leader was accused of mismanagement and of making racially offensive statements.

Rodgers inherited a stack of nearly 2,000 requests for pardons and commutations of prison sentences in the waning months of the president's administration, a time when pressure to exercise the clemency power intensifies.

"If there's ever been a time when the pardon attorney should have an impact, this is it," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., an associate professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois who studies clemency patterns.

Rodgers, a Naval Academy graduate who had worked in a drug intelligence unit at Justice since 1999, declined interview requests. But department spokesman Erik Ablin said that the pardon office is on a "record-setting pace" for receiving clemency petitions this year. About half a dozen lawyers assist Rodgers in the small office, Ablin said.

"The processing and evaluation of these cases takes significant time and in many cases, several years," he added. "The Office of the Pardon Attorney is continuing to work to address the backlog, and the department will continue to evaluate staffing needs for the office."

Lawyers who represent clients seeking pardons and scholars who research clemency said they do not expect Bush, who has granted few such requests as president and in his previous role as Texas governor, to do an about-face during his last months in office.

For one thing, they said, the controversy over last-minute pardons granted by President Bill Clinton, including a pass for fugitive financier Marc Rich, lingers. The Rich decision touched off congressional investigations and a public relations firestorm.

Rodgers's law-and-order background also may influence the process. H. Abbie Erler, a professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, pointed out that Rodgers's record as a former military official and longtime investigator in the narcotics area may not make him amenable to granting mercy to convicted felons.

"That sort of sets the tone," said Erler, who wrote a recent study about the factors that contribute to pardon grants.

Bush has pardoned 157 people and commuted the sentences of six more since 2001, according to Justice Department statistics. The majority of the cases involve offenders who committed relatively minor drug violations or white-collar crimes, experts said. During the same period, the president denied 1,429 pardon applications and 5,683 more requests for commuted sentences.

"I don't think this president has taken the pardon power very seriously, and I don't see any indication that's going to change," said Margaret Colgate Love, the pardon attorney under President George H.W. Bush. "I'm just waiting for the next administration. I'm not looking for anything from this one."

Still, scholars are watching closely to see whether the president will act in some long-simmering cases.

They include:

· I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former vice presidential aide convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice whose prison sentence was commuted by Bush last July. Libby still could receive a full pardon for lying to investigators about his role in sharing the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson with reporters.

· Ignacio Ramos and José Compean, onetime border guards who are serving prison time for shooting a Mexican drug smuggler in 2006 and trying to cover up the crime. Dozens of federal lawmakers have adopted their cause and have asked the Justice Department to reopen the case.

· Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of passing weapons intelligence to the Israeli government more than two decades ago and who has been the focus of a longstanding clemency push by Israeli supporters. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert renewed the plea for mercy in meetings with Bush earlier this year, a spokesman said at the time.

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