Pardon the Indulgence 

Abuse of public trust is grounds for clemency

Abuse of public trust is grounds for clemency

“Ease his pain,” the ethereal whispering voice told Kevin Costner midway through the film Field of Dreams. Bill Clinton apparently heard similar voices as his time in office neared an end. Costner’s character responded by turning an Iowa cornfield into a baseball diamond. Clinton issued pardons.

There are lots of people in the world who could use some pain relief—a helping hand or an act of kindness to make a dolorous life just a little bit easier to handle. Marc Rich clearly is not one of these people. A wealthy financier who amassed a 10-figure fortune trading commodities and junk bonds, Rich has been living the good life in Switzerland since fleeing the U.S. in the mid-1980s to skirt prosecution for trade-sanction violations and the largest tax-evasion scheme in U.S. history. On Clinton’s final day in office, the outgoing president issued a pardon to ease the billionaire fugitive’s pain.

The power to grant clemency is given to presidents in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, and it generally plays out in one of two ways: commutations and pardons. A commutation simply reduces a criminal penalty, such as by shortening a jail term or converting a death sentence to life in prison. The more common form of clemency—a pardon—doesn’t overturn a conviction, but it does eliminate all “civil disabilities,” which are legal restrictions on future activities that accompany a guilty plea or conviction. A pardon can reinstate such privileges as the right to vote, own a gun, rejoin an industry from which you were barred, obtain certain pension benefits, or run for public office. It won’t erase the fact of criminal activity, but may, as one Justice Department pardon attorney put it, “remove the stigma of being a convicted felon.” In rare cases, clemency is granted preemptively before someone is tried or even accused, as when Gerald Ford famously pardoned Richard Nixon in 1992.

Rich’s pardon was part of an unprecedented flurry of presidential clemency granted in the final weeks of the Clinton administration. The gift-giving began just before Christmas with the announcement of 59 pardons and 3 commutations. On the morning he left office, Clinton announced 140 more pardons (including Rich’s) and 36 commutations, contributing to a total of almost 400 pardons during his eight years in office—more than five times as many as the elder George Bush pardoned during his one term, but about the same number as Jimmy Carter (also one term) and Ronald Reagan (two terms).

Clinton has taken a lot of heat for his end-game clemency, much of it from chronic despisers who found this a convenient vehicle for one last scolding. But some of the criticism was friendly fire, and no wonder: It’s hard to outdo the crassness of Bubba’s willingness to pardon his own brother, convicted on drug charges back in the 1980s.

Clinton also bestowed clemency to help out various personal and political associates, including his former housing secretary Henry Cisneros (convicted of lying to FBI agents), former CIA director John Deutch (under investigation for mishandling national secrets), former Democratic congressmen Dan Rostenkowski (mail fraud) and Melvin Reynolds (bank fraud and sex charges), former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (real estate fraud), former aide Stephen Smith (misusing a loan), and former business partner Susan McDougal (bank fraud). Pardons also went to the son of Clinton’s education secretary and the brother-in-law of a former Democratic congressman from Connecticut. More than a few political and editorial allies were publicly dismayed that Clinton circumvented customary procedures and restraints in doling out pardons to scandal-scarred cronies.

Let’s keep in mind that Clinton has no monopoly on abusing the power of clemency to dissipate scandal. Remember President George Bush’s 1992 Christmas Eve pardons for former defense secretary Casper Weinberger and five others either awaiting trail or already convicted of crimes related to the Iran-Contra investigation? Bush explained at the time that the six deserved pardons because their actions were motivated by patriotism without an attempt to profit personally. Clinton, for his part, has not stooped to quite so indecorous an ends-justify-the-means explanation for any of his legal largesse.

To his credit, Clinton has granted pardons or commutations to several drug offenders whose jail time mandated by sentencing guidelines was grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime. He also appropriately commuted the death penalty in a federal murder case where the main witness recanted his testimony. Granted, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy here considering that Clinton’s persistent support for the preposterous war on drugs and the impossibly flawed death penalty helped create these kinds of situations in the first place.

In the final analysis, the cases where pardons seem reasonable do little to diminish the unmistakable perception that presidential clemency is just more proof that the political system offers disproportionate access to those with the means and connections to make their voices heard. Are we to imagine there’s no link between the pardon of Marc Rich and the fact that his ex-wife is a major-league Democratic Party fund-raiser and contributor? Are we to dismiss as irrelevant the fact that Rich’s lawyer is a former Clinton White House counsel and chief of staff for Al Gore?

The poster boy for privileged access is Fife Symington, the former Arizona governor who reportedly was about to plead guilty to felony fraud just as the pardon came through. His lawyer recently confirmed that Symington’s pardon application was submitted directly to the Oval Office rather than through the usual channels at the Justice Department.

In theory, pardons are a way for presidents to restore a measure of dignity to individuals whose reconstructed lives somehow surpass the harms they once inflicted through criminal acts. Most acts of clemency may well fit the bill, although it’s doubtful that even “good” pardons result from equal access to the clemency vetting process. In any case, the few grotesquely inappropriate pardons that have been granted by presidents of both parties taint the entire system with a clear message that abuse of the public trust is among the most pardonable of offenses.


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