The deeper scandal of the Clinton pardons

The Clinton pardon of Glenn Braswell and release from prison of Carlos Vignali, Jr., are particularly sordid.

Both men - one an ex-felon businessman, the other a drug kingpin - won their prizes after lobbying from the ex-president's brother-in-law, who received $400,000 for his services.

Until this twist, the president's pardons had appeared as moresubtle payoffs - based on expectations or understandings of contributions, not cash in hand.

There are many other pardons that appear to be payoffs: to the generously contributing fugitives Marc Rich and Pincus Green; to the four Hasidic Jews from New York who had embezzled millions from the government, but who gave political support to ex-President Bill Clinton's wife; and to the silent Susan MacDougal.

The president's pardon power appears unlimited, but there is a legal principle behind it: to create an ultimate source in our legal system for dispensing justice where the strict standards of the law do not seem exactly to fit and the criminal act, though properly defined, is for some reason less heinous than the corresponding penalty would suggest.

In "The Federalist Papers," Alexander Hamilton defended the pardon power: "The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel."

Admittedly, there are some commutations in the group that might meet Hamilton's standard. Reportedly on the recommendation of the editor of Rolling Stone magazine, a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums caught the president's ear. He commuted the sentences of 17 whom they recommended, all drug offenders of different types. But a review of what is now known about the entire set of 140 pardons and 36 sentence commutations shows deeper themes in terms of the type of crimes and criminals that captured Mr. Clinton's sympathies.

The most astounding set among those pardoned consists of 20 who committed crimes against the legal system: individuals who bribed public officials or the officials themselves who took the bribes. Thus, for example, Clinton pardoned David C. Owen, an ex-lieutenant governor of Kansas convicted on tax charges after accepting $100,000 from a person seeking a parimutual betting license. He also pardoned numerous police and sheriff's department officers convicted of taking bribes.

Another significant set receiving the president's sympathies are ex-politicians who abused their public prominence by defrauding others. Thus, Clinton pardoned, among others, former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, who had falsified financial statements to obtain loans.

Finally, the largest set of those pardoned or whose sentences were commuted consist of what can best be called cronies: friends or friends of friends. Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of 25 criminals with ties to Arkansas and three with ties to Jesse Jackson.

The pattern of these pardons is disturbing. Of all of those convicted under federal law, this is not the set for whom there is the greatest disparity between penalty and crime. These pardons and commutations cannot be defended as efforts to right injustice, even a partial injustice. Those who bribe or take bribes or otherwise abuse public office are not the victims of what Hamilton called "unfortunate guilt."

What's more, these persons appear to be criminals who by some means - political contributions, personal acquaintance, influential supporters - drew the attention of the president and obtained a presidential reward based upon those connections.

Perhaps the most corrosive feature of the Clinton pardons was their timing: They were announced two hours before he left office. Under the Constitution, the presidential power to pardon is generally unconstrained, but it can still be made subject to public and political accountability if some time remains in the president's term and he still has political goals to achieve.

Contrast President Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, announced well in advance of the election at which Mr. Ford was held politically accountable for the act. In order to restore political accountability to the pardon power, we should establish an expectation that, aside from truly exceptional cases, no pardons should be granted at the end of a president's term, nor surely at the dead end.

Clinton's misuse of his office and his contempt for the rule of law as demonstrated in these final acts can fairly be called exponential. He not only disregarded the legal criteria that justify the presidential pardon power, he multiplied the effect by pardoning criminals convicted for themselves abusing their offices or corrupting the legal system. Investigating ways to hold. Clinton accountable for this abuse might prove useful.

Intense public scrutiny can help initiate more firmly a tradition of the exercise of the pardon faithful to Hamilton's standards.

George L. Priest teaches law and economics at Yale Law School, where Minor Myers III is a student.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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