Mr. Holder and Pardons -- The Attorney General Nominee Must Explain His Role

Thursday, January 15, 2009

THE PRESIDENT may grant pardons with or without the blessing of the Justice Department. But at least since the late 19th century, the pardon attorney has been tasked with making recommendations about whether the president should grant them. The department also has traditionally been called upon to give the chief executive the unvarnished views of his law enforcement agents.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee should press attorney general nominee Eric H. Holder Jr. today about his role in and his rationale for supporting or not standing in the way of questionable pardons and commutations granted by President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Holder was deputy attorney general -- and the top Justice official on pardons -- in the late 1990s when Mr. Clinton was considering commutations for members of the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group that was classified by the FBI as a domestic terrorist organization. The group was responsible for some 130 bombings during the 1970s and 1980s; six people were killed and many others injured as a result of those attacks.

The Justice Department in 1996 -- before Mr. Holder joined Justice's headquarters -- recommended against pardons or commutations for any FALN members. On Mr. Holder's watch, the department shifted gears, sending the White House an "options paper" in 1998 that included the possibility of pardons. While not unheard of, it is exceedingly rare for the department to take such an approach. The Los Angeles Times recently published memos from Roger Adams, then a pardon attorney, in which he acknowledged changing the department's position at Mr. Holder's request while reiterating the strongest objections from prosecutors and the FBI to leniency for the FALN members. Mr. Clinton ultimately commuted the sentences of 16 members; many had already served almost 20 years in prison but faced decades more on their full sentences. None of those who received reduced sentences had been convicted of murder.

Mr. Holder should also be closely questioned on his role in the pardon of billionaire financier and fugitive Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a big contributor to Mr. Clinton and whose lawyer was former White House counsel Jack Quinn. Prosecutors in New York objected strenuously to a possible pardon. The department never formally reviewed the pardon request, yet Mr. Holder, on the eve of Mr. Clinton's last day in office, told the White House he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" in granting the pardon.

Through decades of work as a prosecutor and a judge, Mr. Holder earned a reputation for integrity and honest dealing. As U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Mr. Holder prosecuted Democratic powerhouse Rep. Dan Rostenkowski on corruption charges. As deputy attorney general, Mr. Holder earned the enmity of some by backing decisions to appoint independent counsels to investigate Clinton administration officials. Senators must evaluate his fitness for office through the prism of a long and distinguished career, and any missteps must be put in this context. But Mr. Holder must be candid in addressing the pardons to put to rest any possible questions about his motives or his ability to stand up to the White House.

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