Pardon My Pardon?

Virtually no one disagrees that presidential pardon power is an important aspect of the executive branch of government. The pardon process allows flexibility when, after the passage of time, an original judicial decision is found flawed. A good example is the harsh treatment of draft resisters during the Vietnam War. The pardon power acknowledges people can change, and justice may be better served by altering an earlier sentence.

But those considerations didn't apply to the last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich by Bill Clinton. Despite a lengthy defense of his decision on the op-ed page of Sunday's New York Times, the former president still has a lot to answer for.

Yes, presidents have wide discretion in granting pardons, but they should avoid granting them to individuals who even appear to have wielded money, power, and influence over the nation's highest office. Mr. Rich's former wife, Denise, has been a large contributor to the Democratic Party and to Mr. Clinton's presidential library.

On a second point, how the pardon decision was made, Clinton writes: "While I was aware of and took into account the fact that the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York did not support these pardons [of Rich and his partner, Pincus Green], in retrospect, the process would have been better served had I sought her views directly." That, indeed, would have been proper, and would have given the president a contrasting perspective on the case.

His own Justice Department was given short shrift, too. Obviously, Clinton should have been more careful in reviewing the facts and following proper procedure. The impression left is that he was mostly swayed by pardon pleas from Denise Rich, lawyers representing Rich, and Israelis who emphasized Rich's charitable donations in their country.

Clinton stresses that pardons should serve the public welfare. But he fails to explain how the commonweal was served by pardoning someone who skipped the country to avoid prosecution on charges of tax evasion and illegal oil trading.

The Rich pardon has fast become Exhibit A for those making the case of how money can influence politics. Much of the public, along with many Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, suspect large donations given by Mrs. Rich to Democratic causes - well over $1 million all told - were bound to influence the pardon decision.

If there's a benefit to the public from this pardon controversy, it's that campaign finance reform - which is designed to reduce the corruptive influence of money on politics - may be given more impetus in Congress.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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