This week, President Trump granted Milken a full pardon while citing Milken’s charitable and philanthropic work over the past three decades. The president seemingly tried to diminish Milken’s crimes by calling the charges “novel” and suggesting that he had pleaded guilty only to free his brother.
How should the public respond? Should we be outraged or joyous? As one of the lead prosecutors on the Milken case, I am outraged — not at the specific result here but at what the pardon process says about the way justice is served in our country.
When Milken pleaded guilty, George H.W. Bush was president and Donald Trump had not yet filed the first of his four bankruptcies. Rudolph W. Giuliani was a respected prosecutor. The twin towers were still standing and the country had not yet suffered the 2008 financial crisis. A lot of years have passed, enough time to move comfortably past Milken’s financial transgressions. His lawyer once told me that “Michael was a monopolist and his crimes were the crimes of a monopolist.” I have always thought that that was the best description of Milken’s misconduct. He wasn’t Bernie Ebbers or Bernie Madoff, whose frauds devastated millions. It does not offend me when his supporters contend that he wasn’t even a serial insider trader like Ivan Boesky.
I cannot speak to Milken’s place in financial history, but I can attest that he committed financial crimes. I know that not only because we prosecutors saw the evidence but also because his attorneys, the best lawyers of his generation, counseled him to plead guilty. It is true that his crimes were “technical” and “regulatory” in the sense that they violated, as Milken himself put it, “the laws and regulations that govern our industry.” I have always thought that his sentence answered any suggestion that his crimes were less than serious. The sentencing judge determined that Milken should spend years of his life in prison and then three more years doing community service. That has always seemed very serious to me.
The president’s pardon does not wipe away Milken’s admission of guilt, nor does it give him back the years that he spent fighting his case, sitting in jail or serving out his probationary term. In my view, the public should not feel shortchanged by his sentence or his pardon. Supporters arguing for Milken’s place as one of this country’s great financiers now can say that even if he pleaded guilty he was pardoned, but I doubt that history will care. If history records that Milken was pardoned, it will also record that he pleaded guilty and served almost two years in prison. Those are the facts.
What outrages me, and what I think should outrage others, is the process that brought about the pardon. In as guileless an admission as I have ever seen of rich man’s justice, the White House bolstered its decision by listing a murderer’s row of Republican donors and billionaires who provided “widespread and long-standing” support for Milken’s pardon. Sheldon Adelson, Tom Barrack, my old boss Giuliani and others are listed as supporters of the pardon. If I had to prove that the scales of justice tilt toward the rich, I would offer that list and then sit down and wait for the jury to convict.
I have no reason to doubt that Milken has spent the past 30 years doing good works and making the world a better place. He should be given enormous credit for that. I have no dog in this fight, and I don’t think that anyone should lose sleep over his pardon. The Milken prosecution is ancient history, and as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recently said, “We’re all footnotes at best in the annals of history.” But when Milken’s footnote is written, I wonder whether he will be happy to be remembered as the guy who was pardoned by Trump along with a corrupt politician (Rod Blagojevich), a tax cheat (Bernard Kerik) and a bribe-payer (Edward DeBartolo Jr.). I suspect that he was hoping for something better.