Bush denied clemency for some high-profile figures
Cunningham, Milken, Lindh among those whose petitions were rejected
By Josh Meyer
Tribune Washington Bureau
12:32 PM EST, January 27, 2009
President George W. Bush, on his last full day in office, formally struck down the petitions for clemency of some high-profile politicians and businessmen, including convicted lawmakers Randall "Duke" Cunningham, Edwin Edwards and Mario Biaggi, and "junk bond" financier Michael Milken, the Justice Department said today.
The chief of the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, Ronald Rodgers confirmed the denials through a spokeswoman, in response to queries from the Tribune Washington Bureau.
The Justice Department said Bush also denied petitions for clemency for two men who became highly polarizing symbols of their eras. One of them was John Walker Lindh, the young American serving 20 years in prison for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan at a time when it was fighting U.S. military forces just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush also denied one of the longest-standing petitions for clemency, for Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murder of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His application had been under consideration since 1993, current and former Justice Department officials said.
Such denials can be a serious setback for those intent on clemency. After a denial, a petitioner must wait two years to reapply for a pardon and one year for a commutation of a prison sentence, although they can also circumvent the Justice Department and appeal directly to the White House whenever they want. In some cases, a presidential denial can be a setback in other ways, as well, and make it harder politically for the next administration to approve it, according to several current and former administration officials involved in the pardon process.
Bush, who has not spoken publicly about the denials, did not make formal rulings on some other well-known figures, leaving their petitions alive. That long list includes former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, then-Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, U.S. Navy spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard, media mogul Conrad Black and telecommunications executives Bernard Ebbers and John Rigas.
Bush also denied clemency last Dec. 23 for Justin Volpe, the New York City police officer convicted of sodomizing Haiti immigrant Abner Louima with a broomstick, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said today.
Many advocates for those denied clemency had forcefully lobbied the Justice Department and White House, arguing that their prison sentences -- and the underlying charges -- were unfair in comparison to others accused of similar wrongdoings, especially when various forms of good behavior were factored in. Some said those seeking clemency were victims of political scapegoating.
Bush historically has been stingy in his issuing of pardons and prison commutations, issuing far fewer than many other presidents in recent history.
During the Bush administration, 2,498 pardon and 8,573 commutation applications were submitted, Rodgers said today. Bush granted 189 pardons and 11 commutations, and denied 1,729 pardon applications and 7,498 commutation applications. Additionally, 464 pardon applications and 2,222 commutation applications were closed administratively without presidential action, Rodgers said.
For the most part, Bush granted pardons and commutations to obscure federal offenders and not high-profile, politically connected applicants, as was the case with President Bill Clinton and some other previous presidents. He did shorten the sentences of two former U.S. border patrol guards involved in a controversial shooting of a drug smuggler coming across the Mexican border.
"He seems to go out of his way to deny the high rollers, the prominent people," one U.S. official familiar with the pardon denial list said of Bush.
Clinton created a storm of controversy over some clemency grants that continues to this day, in part because Attorney General-nominee Eric H. Holder Jr. played a role in some as deputy attorney general.
Bush's formal denial of clemency for the high-profile applicants raised questions about why he didn't simply pass them along to the Obama administration as he did with so many others, some current and former Justice Department officials said.
Many past presidents also have simply passed along such political hot potatoes on their way out of office, leaving the potentially controversial petitions for their successors to grapple with.
The Justice Department declined to comment on any details of the cases. The White House had no comment, before the inauguration, on who might be granted clemency, or why.
After Bush issued a pardon to Isaac R. Toussie, a 36-year-old New York developer who pleaded guilty in 2001 to making false statements in a Long Island mortgage fraud case, critics said he did so because Toussie was represented by former associate White House counsel Bradford Berenson. After information surfaced that Toussie's application bypassed the Justice Department and that his father was a major donor to Republican causes, Bush took the unprecedented step of trying to revoke the pardon.
But Bush said he was "very proud" of not issuing pardons to the politically well-connected, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview with CNN's Larry King.
"He said people who have gotten pardons are usually people who have influence or know friends in high places," a route that is "not available to ordinary people," Pelosi said, recounting an Inauguration Day conversation with the president. "He thought that there was more access for some than others and he was not going to do any."
The pardon power was created to allow the president to redress injustices that the judicial system is unable to remedy or for other reasons, such as Jimmy Carter's pardon of Vietnam-era draft resisters in an effort to restore domestic tranquility.
The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney traditionally issues a formal recommendation based on a thorough investigation of the applicant and the case. But over the past two decades, more and more applicants have gone directly to the White House, citing a huge backlog of cases at the Justice Department.
In the end, the president alone has the ultimate power to grant or deny pardons or keep them alive.
Some of those denied by Bush had been considered likely candidates for some kind of clemency, in part due to the length of the prison terms, their contributions to society and their extensive lobbying campaigns.
Milken, in particular, has been trying for at least a decade for a presidential pardon with the help of many influential business, community and religious leaders in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
He was charged with a litany of misconduct, including insider trading, stock "parking," tax evasion and repayment of illicit profits. As part of a plea agreement, Milken agreed to pay $200 million in fines, repay $400 million to investors and to accept a lifetime ban from any involvement in the securities industry.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but served less than two. After his release, supporters say, he has spent considerable time and money on improving the lives of the less fortunate, including those diagnosed with cancer, through his Milken foundation.
Milken hired former Bush administration solicitor general Theodore Olson to help shepherd his petition through Justice and the White House. Olson had no comment on Bush's denial of a pardon for Milken.
A lawyer for Cunningham, James B. Craven of Durham, N.C., said the former California lawmaker deserved a shorter prison sentence, in part because of his service to the country as a congressman and a war hero.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors while being a member of the powerful House appropriations and intelligence committees, and was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison in 2006.
Craven said many influential people had been lobbying aggressively in behalf of Cunningham, including Duncan Hunter Sr., the former California Republican congressman, and that he had thought Bush would grant him clemency.
"Randy is 67 and not in great health. He's already served damn near half of his sentence with good time. It's not like he's been in two weeks and wants to go home," said Craven.
Influential former politicians also pushed hard for clemency for Edwards, a colorful four-term governor of Louisiana intermittently from 1972 to 1996. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on racketeering charges in 2001. In recent years, his clemency was supported by two men whom Edwards defeated in Louisiana elections, David C. Treen and J. Bennett Johnston Jr., and a third who was Edwards' protégé, John B. Breaux.
Supporters of Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," say that he got far too extreme a sentence for an impressionable young man captured during a violent prison uprising where CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed, especially in comparison to some others who were freed from U.S. custody despite far more significant links to terrorists.
And supporters of Peltier have waged a decades-long campaign to free him, saying he was a political prisoner given his support of the American Indian Movement, and that there is considerable debate over his guilt and the fairness of his trial.
Biaggi, a Democratic congressman from New York, was sentenced to eight years in prison following his 1988 conviction in the Wedtech scandal of bribery, extortion, racketeering, filing a false tax return, mail fraud and other charges.