A House committee has concluded that the Clinton administration weighed political considerations--including those affecting Vice President Gore--when it decided to grant clemency to a group of imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists, a move that spurred widespread criticism.
The report includes e-mail memos from two White House aides that seem to suggest a clemency offer could help Gore, who is running for president in 2000. White House officials, however, said yesterday that the memos simply stated that any resolution--either granting or denying clemency--would help Gore by taking the volatile issue off the table.
Jeffrey L. Farrow, co-chairman of the White House's interagency working group on Puerto Rico, sent a March 6 e-mail to several colleagues saying, "The issue should be resolved soon--the petitions have been before us for a long time. The VP's Puerto Rican position would be helped." The memo--first reported in yesterday's New York Times and New York Post--noted that clemency was a priority for three congressional Democrats with large Puerto Rican constituencies.
White House deputy chief of staff Maria Echaveste, a recipient of Farrow's memo, forwarded a copy the next day to Charles F.C. Ruff, then the White House counsel.
"Chuck--Jeff's right about this--very hot issue," Echaveste said in her e-mail message to Ruff. Ruff eventually recommended that President Clinton grant clemency, which he did on Aug. 11 for 16 of the prisoners. Most had spent many years behind bars for activities on behalf of a Puerto Rican nationalist group called FALN.
At the time, several Republicans alleged that Clinton was trying to curry favor with New York's Puerto Rican voters on behalf of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is planning a Senate bid in the Empire State. Little attention focused on Gore until Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee subpoenaed White House records--including the e-mail messages--that form the heart of their report, being released today.
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said yesterday: "Neither the vice president nor his staff was involved in the decision-making process on this issue, and the president made his decision on the merits." Of Farrow's memo, he said, "This reference is simply to the desire by some to have the issue resolved soon, but is not advocating which way the decision should go."
Gore told reporters yesterday he was unaware of the committee's report and had "no idea" whether the clemency decision would hurt or help him. He said Farrow and Echaveste could "speak for themselves" regarding their memos.
When asked on Sept. 6 about the clemency decision, Gore had said: "The proper course of action is to wait to review the analysis now underway that will be presented to the White House later this week, and I'll defer judgment until that time."
Yesterday Gore said: "If I told you that I was going to review the records, there may be a misunderstanding. What I meant was, at that moment the White House was in the process of reviewing its decision-making. I have not reviewed the records and here's why: This is a power given to the president. . . . It is his decision alone."
Also yesterday, Gore took his strongest position yet on the U.S. military's use of a Puerto Rican island, Vieques, for bombing practice. He said he told Clinton that "the Navy should search for an alternative way of training that did not have the harsh impact on Puerto Rico that the use of Vieques for last six years has had."