Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning non-fiction writer. She enjoys sharing information about America's presidents and their families.
Bill Clinton's Clemency Caper
On January 20, 2001, with only hours left in his term as president of the United States, Bill Clinton issued 140 presidential pardons and several commutations to people that had been convicted of federal criminal offenses. The granting of clemency to these criminals, some of whom were Clinton's relatives and friends, was met with much criticism from the American people, including an ex-president. These actions became known by some in Washington circles as "Pardongate" and the "Clemency Caper."
What Is a Presidential Pardon?
According to the Constitution, presidents have the authority to grant clemency in the form of a pardon or a commutation in crimes prosecuted at the federal level. They have no powers of clemency in crimes that are prosecuted by the states.
- A pardon is the removal of a conviction and the cancellation of the penalty. It removes restrictions such as not being allowed to vote, hold public office, or serve on a jury, and restores the right to bear arms.
- A commutation is a reduction or stop of the sentence of someone already serving the sentence. However, it doesn't remove the conviction: The person is still considered guilty of the offense and they don't have any of their civil rights restored such as voting, etc.
Petitions for presidential clemency are investigated by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. After consulting with the Attorney General, the Pardon Attorney makes his recommendation on each pardon request to the president. The decision is made solely by the president and it can not be overturned by any other branches of the government. If the petitioner is denied the clemency request, there is no appeal process and the president's reasons for turning down the request are not disclosed. The documents surrounding a pardon application are considered confidential and are not available under the Freedom of Information Act.
Some of the Most Controversial Clinton Presidential Pardons
During his tenure as president, Clinton granted clemency to 459 people including the 140 last minute pardons that were issued during his final hours in office. Some were so controversial, a federal prosecutor was appointed to investigate. He found no wrongdoing on Clinton's part, however, some are still being debated today including the following:
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- The president's half-brother, Roger Clinton, Jr., was granted a pardon after serving his full sentence of one year in federal prison for cocaine possession. Ironically, shortly after receiving the pardon from his brother, Roger Clinton was arrested for drunk driving and disorderly conduct which seemed to substantiate the criticism that he should not have received clemency on the drug charges.
- Susan McDougal, a business partner of Bill and Hilary Clinton, served 18 months in prison for her involvement in the Whitewater scandal. She was charged with contempt of court for refusing to testify about the Clinton's role in the scandal. President Clinton granted her a pardon after she had completed her sentence causing many to claim it was his way of paying her back for protecting him during the investigation.
- Melvin Reynolds, a fellow Clinton Democrat, was a congressman from Illinois who was serving time in prison for sexual assault, obstruction of justice and solicitation of child pornography. Near the end of his 5 year sentence on those charges, he was convicted of bank fraud and received a sentence to serve 78 additional months. President Clinton commuted the bank fraud sentence and arranged for him to serve time at a halfway house. Reynolds had not requested a presidential pardon and none was granted. Many criticized Clinton for arranging for leniency because the sex charges had stemmed from Reynolds' sexual relationship with a 16 year old campaign volunteer.
- Harvey Weinig was a Manhattan lawyer who pleaded guilty to laundering $19 million made from illegal drug sales by Colombian drug traffickers. Weinig told the sentencing judge, "There is no avoiding the fact that I engaged in serious illegal conduct for which there is no excuse." The judge sentenced him to the highest sentence allowed, 11 years and 3 months. Clinton commuted that sentence after Weinig had only served 5 years and 270 days The Weinig clemency case received much criticism in the press including the TIME magazine article titled, "Bill, How Low Can You Go?" Weinig was related to a White House staffer.
- Another eleventh hour pardon that ignited a firestorm of controversy was granted to Marc Rich, who was indicted for evading $48 million in taxes and illegal oil deals with Iran during the time Iran was holding US hostages. He had fled to Switzerland and was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Rich's attorney made the pardon application directly to the White House instead of going through the normal channels at the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Much of the controversy involves large donations made by Rich's ex-wife to the Clinton campaign and the Clinton Presidential Library. The pardon was met with outrage from both sides of the Congressional aisle.
- The most criticized and publicly alarming clemency of the Clinton administration was the pardon of 16 members of the FALN, a violent Puerto Rican terrorist group that set off 120 bombs in the United States. The FALN was responsible for 6 deaths and injuries to many others, including law enforcement officers. The FALN members that were in jail were not convicted of harming anyone but were sentenced on charges of conspiracy to commit robbery, bomb-making, sedition, and firearms and explosives violations. Many groups lobbied for President Clinton to deny clemency, including the FBI, the Fraternal Order of Police and the victims of the FALN bombings. However, Clinton yielded to requests from the Archbishop of Puerto Rico and the Cardinal of New York for clemency for all 16 of the terrorists. At the time of the sentence commutations, Hillary Clinton went on record in support of the President's actions but later, during her campaign for the Senate, she withdrew her support.
Public Reaction to the Presidential Pardons
All presidents have exercised the privilege of presidential pardons, including George Washington who handed out 16 of them during his eight years in office. Franklin Roosevelt has the distinction of being the president that issued the most pardons with 3,687. The anger that is directed toward the Clinton pardons comes from the timing (140 granted on his way out the White House door), the nature of some of the offenses, and the accusations of cronyism due to several of the clemency beneficiaries having a personal connection to the president. The controversy has been fueled by the press with labels of "Pardongate," "Clemency Caper," and many others.
Shortly after President Clinton left office, he called the television show Rivera Live and told host Geraldo Rivera he was "blindsided" by the controversy. He said he "just wanted to do what other presidents had done."
Americans sometimes tend to "forgive and forget" as time goes by according to the old adage "time heals all wounds." However, we are still talking about this today.
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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone