Clemency for Sale
Los Angeles Times - January 26, 2001
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
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.
See Also: The Clemency Page