A president's power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States" is absolute and unappealable. It can be used at any time, though it's usually exercised when a president is about to leave office--as a last act of compassion or because at that point the departing president can no longer be hurt by political controversy. On his last day in office Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons, which initially drew only modest attention. A second look has prompted a different reaction.
It's the custom for presidents to ask the Justice Department or other concerned federal agencies for their opinions on most applications for pardons. Those who have worked the cases a president is reviewing are in the best position to know whether pardons have been earned or whether commutations are warranted. In several prominent cases Clinton either bypassed that review process or waited until the last minute to tell officials what he was contemplating and then ignored their objections.
In a notable instance of pandering, Clinton commuted the sentences of four Hasidic men convicted of defrauding the government of millions of dollars by creating a phony religious school. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who drew strong support from the politically powerful Hasidic community in her run for a Senate seat from New York, attended a meeting last December where a pitch for commutation was made to the president, but she denies knowing beforehand that the issue would be raised.
Clinton's most flagrant misuse of his authority was in pardoning Marc Rich, who became a fugitive after being charged with 51 counts of conspiracy, cheating the government out of $48 million in taxes and trading with the enemy. The chief string-puller in that case was Jack Quinn, one of Rich's lawyers and, more to the point, Clinton's former White House counsel. Rich's former wife, Denise, also wrote Clinton supporting a pardon, a fact that might not be notable except for Denise Rich's donations of more than $1 million to Democrats since 1993, including a contribution of $10,000 to Clinton's legal defense fund.
Marc Rich fled to Switzerland, which does not extradite on tax evasion charges, to avoid answering allegations that could have earned him decades of prison time. Whatever charitable contributions he has made since then do not clear him of the crimes for which he has been charged. Clinton's pardon reeks of a political payoff. It sends a clear message that while justice may not be for sale, executive clemency is.
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