Sometime soon President Carter will have to make what the sports world calls "a judgment call" when he decides - in secret - whether to pardon the huge sports conglomerate known as Emprise whose record is marred by a costly corporate felony conviction.
Presidents in the past have pardoned mothers' sons who also happen to be murderers, runaway draft protesters and even a former President. But never before has one been called upon to show official compassion to a corporation, Justice Department officials say.
The Emprise case is especially interesting for the glimpse it allows into the world of big-time and big-money power plays normally carried out behind the scenes in Washington.
By any yardstick Emprise is a giant. The Buffalo-base corporation is active in 39 states, Canada, Puerto Rico and Europe under the corporate name of Sportsystems, Inc. In the sports business it controls everything from dog tracks in Arizona to the Boston Bruins professional hockey team, and reportedly grosses $600 million annually.
The company's name was also one of the last words spoken by Don Bolles as the Arizona reporter lay dying on the street last year after being blasted out of his automobile in Phoenix by an assassin's dynamite bomb. Investigators have found no connection, however, between Emprise and the bombing.
But five years ago a federal jury in Los Angeles did connect Emprise with a scheme in which mobsters used $712,498 of the company's funds to buy into a Las Vegas casino.
In its pardon petition, Emprise claims that it has radically altered its corporate structure since the federal conviction and that it no longer has any ties to organized crime or underworld figures. The conviction noted Emprise relationships with two organized crime figures, and the company has received widespread publicity about loans it made in the past to persons allegedly linked to organized crime.
The 1972 federal conviction cost Emprise a $10,000 fine. Far more costly, though, it opened the way for nearly a dozen states to attempt to throw the company out of their jurisdictions on the grounds of its conviction and history of connections with organized crime figures.
Only one state - Oregon - has been successful so far, but Emprise claims its legal bills in the other states have run to $2 million. At least two states - New York and Colorado - are currently attempting to oust the company.
Now, shielded by a secrecy rule put into effect by the Justice Department last year on all aspects of the presidential pardon process, Emprise has quietly rounded up an impressive and unlikely list of supporters in its try for presidential clemency.
Justice Department officials declined last week to reveal any information about the company's pardon petition. But knowledgeable sources said at least two former senior Justice officials - who are now on the Emprise payroll - wrote letters recently backing the pardon petition.
The two are Henry Petersen, former assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division until his retirement Dec. 31, 1974, and Daniel P.Hollman, former head of the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in New York City until April 28, 1972. Both men are now attorney retained by Emprise.
In a two-page letter to the pardon attorney Petersen said last January that he backed the Emprise pardon bid "without reservation". The letter made no direct reference to Petersen's work for the company.
Hollman did note his association with the company in an affidacit field in support iation with the company in an affidavit filed in support an letters were engineered by still another former Justice Department attorney hired to represent Emprise. William O. Bittman, a former member of the federal Organized Crime Section in Chicago, said during an interview at his office in Washington that he thought he requested Justice officials to ask for Petersen's comments and that he helped prepare Hollman's affidavit.
The two letters "raised some eye-brows," according to federal officials. Even more surprising, however, was an endorsement for the company from former Rep. Sam Steiger (R-Ariz.), who wrote that a pardon for Emprise "would be in best interests of the country."
Steiger had made a virtual career out of publically attacking Emprise for its organized crime connections from 1970 until his defeat last fall. He once told the House in a speech that Emprise's "association with the underworld has followed a constant pattern" and outlines numerous loans and transactions between Emprise and organized crime figures.
Steiger's letter was particularly unusual, since it arrived only a short time after another letter from the former congressman to the Justice Department. In the first letter Steiger strongly opposed any pardon for Emprise, knowledgeable officials said.
Steiger refused last week to discus either letter during a short telephone interview from his home in Prescott. Ariz. Last January he said his change in attitude toward Emprise camed because his earlier attacks against the company had been "unfair."
Emprise has three large libel suits pending against Steiger. Action on at least one suit for $1 million was suspended indefinitely at the request of the company's lawyers after Steiger met with Emprise officials in Buffalo last December. An Emprise spokesman said Steiger decided to write the second letter after the meeting.
"The atmosphere concerning Steiger has changed," said Bittman, who was instrumental in arranging the meeting in December between the former congressman and Emprise officials. "I think right now we'd be happy with a $1 judgment against Mr. Steiger."
Knowledge sources said at least one other present or former official has also written supporting the Emprise petition, but the identity of the letter writer could not be immediately learned.
The importance of the letters was underscored this week by Justice Department officials familiar with the pardon process. The pardon office, they said, lacks the investigators to verify Emprise's allegations that it has completely purged itself of all links to organized crime. That assertion is the mainstay of the firm's argument for a pardon.
So complex is the Emprise empire that officials in New York, preparing to launch a full investigation of the company in connection with issuing the company a racing license, have taken more than seven months to put together an investigative team.
"We start to explain what we have to do and the people we want to hire tell us it's just too much work," said a New York racing official.
In addition to the letters supporting Emprise, the Justice Department has also received several strong recommendations against pardoning the company. One West Coast strike force official familiar with the company advised in strong terms last July that the petition be rejected because of the lack of information about the company.
"There's no way to tell if anything has changed," said the official. "They may have shifted the names around but nobody knows if the players are the same or not."
Law enforcement officials in Arizona and Colorado also have written requesting that the petition be denied.Neither state has uncovered information connecting Emprise to organized crime, but Bruce Babbitt, Arizona's attorney general, said he opposed the pardon anyway.
"The granting of a presidential pardon would in my view be nothing more than a political act," Babbitt, Arizona's attorney general, said he opposed the pardon anyway.
"The granting of a presidential pardon would be in my view be nothing more than a political act," Babbitt said in his letter. Pardoning Emprise, he said, would prove that "large corporations with powerful political support can erase the effects of a fairly obtained conviction."