A March 10 article on pardons misidentified President Andrew Johnson, who along with President Abraham Lincoln extended amnesty to about 200,000 people during and after the Civil War. (Published 3/11/01)
Previous presidents have granted pardons to political supporters and big donors, but the spate of pardons granted by President Clinton during his final days in office was unique in the amount of back-channel lobbying, the limited scrutiny applied to those seeking clemency, and the number of people who succeeded in obtaining pardons.
Interviews with former White House officials, Justice Department lawyers responsible for reviewing pardon requests and records from the U.S. Archives indicate that the system for granting clemency under Clinton represented a dramatic escalation of the influence of personal connections and a dramatic departure from normal procedures, with a number of the most controversial pardons not submitted for the usual Justice Department review.
And while the overall number of pardons granted by Clinton was in line with those of recent presidents, no previous president has issued such a large number of unfiltered pardons at the last possible moment. Clinton's predecessors generally granted pardons steadily throughout their terms; Clinton, by contrast, granted no pardons at all during four of his first five years as president, the fewest since George Washington, then markedly accelerated the pace. More than half the 457 pardons he granted came during his last month in office.
Before Clinton's final pardons, which she called "unprecedented," former Justice Department pardon attorney Margaret Colgate Love said the number of situations in recent decades in which a pardon was granted without a prior Justice Department investigation and recommendation from the attorney general "could be counted on the fingers of one hand."
The exceptions were President Gerald R. Ford's 1974 pardon of former president Richard M. Nixon; President Ronald Reagan's 1981 pardon of two top FBI officials who had ordered illegal surveillance of American radicals, and President George H.W. Bush's 1992 pardons of former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other Iran-contra figures.
By contrast, more than 30 of the 177 pardons and commutations granted by Clinton on his last day did not go through the Justice procedures, which typically take 18 to 24 months and are designed to provide a full set of facts and law enforcement's view of the matter. Most of the actions that escaped such scrutiny were advocated by people close to Clinton, including his brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham; his close friend, producer Harry Thomason; and political donors Beth Dozoretz and Denise Rich.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has called Clinton's handling of the pardons a "chaotic mess" that should "embarrass every Democrat and every American." At the same time, he said, the Republican-led Government Reform Committee was guilty of "selective indignation," citing President George Bush's 1989 pardon of industrialist Armand Hammer for making $54,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Nixon.
Hammer, who tried unsuccessfully to obtain a pardon during the Reagan administration, had recently donated money to the Bush-Quayle inaugural fund and another $110,000 to state Republican parties. "The appearance of a quid pro quo is just as strong in the Hammer case as in the [Marc] Rich case, if not stronger, since Mr. Hammer himself gave the contribution," Waxman said.
Lawyers who have worked the system say that Clinton exceeded the norm in handling so many cases from the White House. Previously, these attorneys say, the pleas and the pleaders were almost always sent first to the Justice Department to make their case, reducing the likelihood of a regrettable decision.
"In the Reagan administration, there were no stealth pardons," said Reagan's White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding. At the Bush White House, "we never suggested to anyone that we were open for business," said former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray. "So unless you were really very sophisticated, you never would have thought of starting out at the White House. As a result, we never got bombarded."
Controversy over presidential pardons stretches far back in U.S. history. As Duquesne University law professor Ken Gormley told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Thomas Jefferson was suspected of favoring his Anti-Federalist supporters, while Abraham Lincoln was accused of granting a disproportionally large number of pardons to friends from Kentucky, with "pardon brokers" extracting lucrative fees for their supposed services in obtaining pardons.
When President Harry S. Truman commuted the mail fraud sentence of former Boston mayor James Michael Curley, he was condemned for helping a fellow Democratic politician. At the end of his term, Truman issued seven pardons without going through the Justice process, all but one of whom were current or former government officials who had served their sentences.
The outcry over that, Love said, prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell, to announce a "goldfish bowl" policy of making pardon grants public as well as the names of the persons recommending them, a policy that had been in effect before the New Deal. Love said, however, that the policy was later abridged to prevent disclosure of who made the recommendations.
In 1971, Nixon granted clemency to Teamsters head James R. Hoffa, cutting short his prison term for jury tampering. The next year, the union endorsed Nixon for reelection. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter commuted the prison term of Patty Hearst Shaw after hearing from nearly 50 members of Congress who supported the idea.
John R. Stanish, pardon attorney in the Carter administration, said applications submitted directly to the White House were given a courteous hearing and promptly kicked over to his office for review and recommendation. He recalled a group of Hasidic Jews who found their way to the White House counsel's office with high-powered backing from the New York Democratic Party.
Seeking clemency for a convicted diamond smuggler, the delegation was sent to Justice, where Stanish met with them and looked into the matter. Clemency was denied.
In another case, Stanish said, Carter sent him a highly personal note from the president of Sudan, asking for a pardon of a Sudanese national. Affixed to it was a Carter message to Attorney General Griffin Bell: "Griffin, handle this as you see fit. Prepare a response for me." No pardon was granted.
On his next to last day in office, Reagan pardoned New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for illegally funneling money to Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign. Like Bush's later pardon of Hammer, the Steinbrenner pardon -- obtained with the help of former attorney general William B. Saxbe -- prompted accusations of favoritism for the rich and well-connected.
The best-known Bush pardon was the Christmas Eve 1992 clemency granted to Weinberger and five others connected to the Iran-contra affair. Bush said Weinberger was an American hero, but the pardon also may have spared him from being called to testify at Weinberger's trial.
Apart from Weinberger and the other Iran-contra defendants, Gray said, all pardon petitions forwarded to Bush were reviewed by Justice.
At the same time, there were occasional bursts of intense lobbying. In addition to his Iran-contra pardons, Bush in his final days in office kicked up a storm when he commuted the sentence of Joseph Occhipinti, a former immigration agent imprisoned for conducting illegal searches of Hispanic-owned businesses in New York. Clemency had been sought by then Staten Island Borough President Guy V. Molinari, the New York state chairman of Bush's 1988 campaign, who demanded the Justice Department look at what he said was new evidence.
Then-Deputy Attorney General George J. Terwilliger said much of the material had been fabricated, but he recommended clemency anyway. New York prosecutors were outraged when Bush ordered Occhipinti freed after serving eight months of a 37-month prison term.
Until the number plummeted in recent decades, several hundred pardons and commutations were granted by American presidents each year. George Washington proclaimed amnesty for hundreds of participants in the Whiskey Rebellion, a violent uprising of Pennsylvania farmers who refused to pay taxes on the whiskey they made. During the Civil War and after, presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson extended amnesty to about 200,000 people.
In 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pardoned several thousand convicts who had served at least a year in the military. Truman pardoned 9,000 people who had been convicted of desertion in peacetime.
Pardons began declining under Reagan with the arrival of a tough-on-crime era, and they continued to drop during the Bush and Clinton administrations. Carter pardoned 563 people in one term, while Reagan granted 406 pardons in two. President George H.W. Bush made 77 clemency grants during his four years, while Clinton made 457 in eight.
"Clinton and the old George Bush were about as stingy as you can get in granting clemency," Stanish said. "A lot of good cases died on the vine."
Clinton pressed Justice early last year to increase its referrals of favorable recommendations. But the small pardon attorney's staff at Justice was overwhelmed. Last fall, former White House counsel Beth Nolan testified, the agency informed the White House that it was unable to process more applications, but that did not stop petitions from being handled directly by the White House.
In fact, the pardons that occurred without Justice review appeared to conflict with Clinton's own assessment of how clemency petitions should be handled. In 1996, while running for reelection, Clinton was asked about the prospect of pardoning Whitewater figures Susan McDougal -- who eventually received a pardon on Jan. 20 -- and former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker, who did not.
"My position would be that their cases should be handled like others. There's a regular process for that, and I have regular meetings on that, and I review those cases as they come up, after there's an evaluation done by the Justice Department. And that's how I think it should be handled," Clinton told PBS.
Clinton's willingness to have White House staff play a role "entirely independent of the Justice Department" was evident in his 1999 clemency grant to members of the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group involved in terrorist acts, Love said. Justice had recommended against clemency in 1996 and in the end, Clinton relied entirely on the White House counsel, whose advice was based on a White House investigation of the cases.
"We should have seen a big red flashing light because of the FALN cases," she said. "The FALN grants foreshadowed the endgame."
Staff researchers Alice Crites, Madonna Lebling and Margot Williams contributed to this report.