G.O.P. Wants Clinton to Explain Clemency for Puerto Rican Nationalists

September 2, 1999 - The New York Times - James Dao

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans stepped up pressure on the administration Wednesday to explain President Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 members of a violent Puerto Rican nationalist group, subpoenaing White House and Justice Department records and raising the likelihood of congressional hearings in the fall.

Last month, Clinton offered to reduce the sentences of 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, commonly known by its Spanish initials, FALN, on the condition they renounce violence. The group was involved in more than 100 bombings in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

The 16 FALN members were not linked to crimes involving deaths or injuries, and the White House said Clinton considered their sentences, in some cases more than 50 years in prison, to be out of proportion to their crimes.

Wednesday, the House Committee on Government Reform issued subpoenas to the White House and the Justice Department seeking all records relating to the president's decision. The committee is also considering holding hearings on the clemency offer when Congress returns after Labor Day.

"We are going to do what we hope is a short investigation to find out why the president would be interested in pardoning 16 terrorists," said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "It should come as no shock that people on both sides of the aisles are against this."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno Wednesday requesting Justice Department records from the case. In his letter, Hatch said he was particularly concerned about a report in The New York Times that a wide range of federal law-enforcement agencies were opposed to commuting the sentences of the 16.

Spokesmen for the White House and Justice Department would not comment on the subpoenas. But a senior Justice Department official said the department was likely to resist complying with the subpoenas on the ground that pardons are the exclusive power of the president, over which Congress has no say.

The two committees' demands for records were part of a broader wave of criticism and second-guessing about Clinton's clemency offer coming from both parties on Capitol Hill this week.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said through an aide Wednesday that he opposed the clemency offer, but declined to elaborate. And the state's junior Democratic senator, Charles Schumer, usually a strong defender of the Clinton administration, said he wanted to see the internal Justice Department report on the clemency proposal before he took a position on it.

At the request of Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., the House Judiciary Committee is also considering holding hearings on the clemency offer this fall.

"The question for us, given the level of resistance from federal agencies to the clemency offer, is, why now?" said Sam Stratman, a spokesman for Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the committee's chairman. "The White House has been very reserved in defending itself on this decision, and it might be helpful to them and to us for there to be a better explanation."

Many Republicans believe that Clinton made the clemency offer to help his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, win support from New York's large Puerto Rican community in her expected run for the Senate from New York. Burton's subpoenas include a request to Mrs. Clinton and her office for any records relating to the offer.

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's campaign, said the first lady supports clemency provided the 16 renounce violence. But he said she had "no involvement whatsoever" in the decision.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, Mrs. Clinton's likely Republican opponent in the Senate race, has criticized Clinton's offer to reduce the sentences.

Under Clinton's proposal, 11 of the 16 FALN members would be eligible for immediate release from prison, two would have to serve more time before being eligible for release, and three others who have already been released from prison would have fines reduced. The 16 are still reviewing the offer.

In the wake of Clinton's clemency proposal to the FALN members, supporters of Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American who spied for Israel, have increased their lobbying efforts to get the administration to commute his life sentence.

On Sunday, a coalition of New York Jewish groups demonstrated outside Mrs. Clinton's Manhattan campaign headquarters, asking her to support Pollard's release. "She can't lose on this, politically or substantively," said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat from Brooklyn. "Her input could be decisive."

Wolfson said, "She understands the importance of this case, and has no further comment."

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