Political Pardons: Relief For The Recipient, Grief For The President

Sunday, March 11th 2007, 1:33 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Richard Nixon. Mark Felt. Caspar Weinberger. Marc Rich.

Is President Bush willing to risk _ on behalf of ex-White House aide I. Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby _ the kind of political grief that pardons for those four men brought the presidents who granted them?

Nixon resigned the presidency over the Watergate scandal. Felt was the FBI man convicted of ordering illegal break-ins. Weinberger was the defense secretary charged in the Iran-Contra scandal. Rich was a fugitive financier.

All received presidential pardons processed outside normal channels.

As in those cases, Bush would have to bypass the regular clemency process to pardon Libby for the four felonies he was convicted of on Tuesday.

Such pardons historically have gotten presidents into political trouble.

A number of conservative politicians, bloggers and commentators, including National Review and Wall Street Journal editorial writers, want Libby pardoned _ preferably now. Top Democrats have demanded that Bush pledge not to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

William Jeffress, one of Libby's lawyers, said, ``I believed a pardon for Scooter was appropriate last summer'' when it came out that a State Department official, not Libby, was the initial source for a newspaper column disclosing the classified CIA job of Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson.

Bush's spokesman Tony Snow has tried to dampen speculation. Snow said Bush is ``careful'' about pardons and takes the process very seriously. ``He wants to make sure that anybody who receives one _ that it's warranted,'' Snow said.

The Constitution grants the president absolute power to grant pardons, without approval by Congress or second-guessing by the courts.

The only check on abuse is the risk of ``the damnation of his fame to all future ages,'' as James Iredell, one of the original Supreme Court justices, once put it. Some have run that risk.

_President Ford pardoned Nixon for Watergate before Nixon had even been charged. The resulting rage is thought by many political observers to have cost Ford his bid to be elected president in 1976.

_President Reagan pardoned Felt and another FBI executive in 1981 while they were appealing convictions for ordering secret and illegal searches of the homes of relatives and friends of violent opponents of the Vietnam War. The New York Times called Reagan's clemency ``a gratuitous revision of the record.'' Prosecutor John W. Nields Jr., who was not consulted, complained Reagan surely did not know what the trial brought out about Felt _ who years later was unmasked as the mysterious ``Deep Throat'' source that helped expose Watergate.

_On Christmas eve in 1992, just before he left office, the first President Bush pardoned Weinberger and a CIA official as they awaited trial on Iran-Contra charges, as well as four other administration officials who had pleaded or been found guilty in the scandal. Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh complained ``the Iran-Contra cover-up ... has now been completed,'' thus blocking him from fully examining Bush's own role.

_On his last day in office in 2001, President Clinton pardoned 140 people. One was Rich, who had lived abroad for 17 years to avoid trial on charges of evading $48 million in taxes. Congress held hearings on the Rich pardon. A federal investigation looked into whether the pardon was a reward for contributions by Rich's ex-wife to Clinton's presidential library and his wife's Senate campaign; no charges were brought.

None of these pardons went through the vetting process set up at the Justice Department by President McKinley in 1898.

Department rules require that pardon-seekers wait five years after conviction or release from prison, whichever is later, before applying. Bush has less than two years left in office, but presidents are not bound by department regulations.

The waiting period is designed to allow petitioners ``to demonstrate they can live as productive, law-abiding citizens,'' said Margaret C. Love, the department's pardon attorney during 1990-1997, under the elder Bush and Clinton's first term.

On occasion, the waiting period has been waived by the pardon attorney or at the president's request, Love said. One example was a teacher involved in steroid distribution who the prosecutor said helped the government case and whose school district needed a pardon to continue employing him.

The pardon attorney's career staff verifies claims of rehabilitation and checks with the prosecutor, judge and victim. Complete and consistent evaluations help produce department recommendations that may shield a president from criticism.

But since Attorney General Griffin Bell delegated the supervision to subordinates in 1977, Love said, the process has been ``dominated by federal prosecutors, who tended to regard pardon as an interference with their law enforcement responsibilities.''

Career prosecutors take a grave view of crimes against the system of justice, like Libby's perjury and obstruction of justice convictions. Although appointed by Bush as a U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald is a career prosecutor and voiced that viewpoint after winning the Libby convictions.

``Truth is what drives our judicial system. If people don't tell the truth, the system cannot work. Having a high-level official lie under oath is just something that can never be accepted.''

Many advocates of a pardon for Libby say he should never have been charged at all. He maintains his innocence while defense lawyers work on an appeal.

But a Justice Department manual says, ``A petitioner should be genuinely desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication. ... A petitioner's attempt to minimize or rationalize culpability does not advance the case for pardon.''

Finally, Bush just does not grant many pardons. In his first year as Texas governor, he was burned. A county constable he pardoned for a marijuana conviction was caught months later stealing cocaine.

``I said, `Whoa!' because it was a pretty rough story,'' Bush told a reporter. He went on to set a 50-year record low for pardons in Texas, granting only 19, including six convicts who proved their innocence.

As president, he's granted just 113 in just over six years _ the stingiest record among the 11 presidents since the end of World War II.