Video: Bush grants, then revokes Toussie pardon

updated 12/26/2008 12:36:46 AM ET 2008-12-26T05:36:46

The ties that bind fathers and sons come in all shapes and sizes, including 10-foot-high chain-link fences.

That is one of the many connections between Robert Toussie and his son Isaac, who was pardoned and unpardoned by President Bush this week, decisions that set abuzz the normally sedate Brooklyn community of Manhattan Beach.

Neighbors say the elder Mr. Toussie built the fence a decade ago to keep rabble-rousers away from the shoreline promenade on the Rockaway Inlet that abuts his family’s waterfront homes, including one where Isaac lives.

While Mr. Toussie’s fence, which has No Trespassing signs in English and Russian, has largely kept the derelicts at bay, it has also alienated neighbors who might otherwise have little bad to say about him.

It also shines light on the complex relationship between Mr. Toussie and his son, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to using false documents to have mortgages insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in 2002 to mail fraud, admitting that he had persuaded officials in Suffolk County to overpay for land.

The White House said Thursday that when Mr. Bush granted Isaac Toussie, 37, a pardon earlier this week, the president and his advisers were unaware that the elder Mr. Toussie had recently donated $30,800 to Republicans. Mr. Bush took the extraordinary step of rescinding the pardon on Wednesday after reports about the political contributions.

The White House spokeswoman, Dana M. Perino, said in an e-mail message Thursday that the administration never sought information on political donations in considering pardon applications.

“This would be inappropriate on many levels,” Ms. Perino said. “Given that no one advising the president knew of the donation by Toussie’s father, and because of the possibility of an appearance of impropriety, the counsel to the president withdrew his recommendation.”

While the younger Mr. Toussie has said nothing publicly since the revelation of the donations on Tuesday, his supporters say he deserved a pardon because he was contrite about his misdeeds and had made significant charitable contributions before and after his convictions. Both of these factors are believed to have been factors in Mr. Bush’s original decision to grant the pardon.

“There was a long list of charitable donations and work he had done since his sentence,” Ms. Perino said.

Officials said Fred F. Fielding, the White House counsel, was unaware in reviewing the petition that Mr. Toussie’s father had recently donated $28,500 to the Republican National Committee and $2,300 to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain of Arizona.

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People involved in the pardon process say it has become more common in recent months for those seeking clemency to go directly to the White House, as Mr. Toussie’s lawyer, Bradford Berenson, did, rather than go through the Justice Department.

Mr. Bush’s revoking of the pardon was so unusual that some legal experts questioned whether he had the authority to reverse the pardon, one of 19 the White House announced Tuesday. But the Justice Department said it believed that the original pardon announcement was not binding and could be revoked because Mr. Toussie had not received formal notification of the president’s action. Mr. Toussie’s lawyers hope he might still be granted a pardon once the Justice Department completes a formal review.

The father and son have worked in real estate for years, but in 2001 the elder Mr. Toussie sued Suffolk County, saying, in effect, that they had been tied too closely together. The suit, still pending, said the county had refused to sell Robert Toussie 31 parcels of land he won at a county auction because of his son’s legal troubles.

Both Toussies are among the defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2001 by about 400 home buyers, most of them black or Hispanic, who say they were sold poorly constructed new homes at inflated prices and were fooled into believing that property taxes would be deferred or reduced. The case is continuing.

Some of his Brooklyn neighbors say Mr. Toussie has been protective of his son. He helped him buy a home on Dover Street several years ago, according to a resident who did not want to be named for fear of antagonizing neighbors. He extended the chain-link fence from his homes on Exeter, one street to the east, to his son’s home.

But the fence cut through a 104-by-20-foot grass strip abutting the home of Igor Zolotov, who lives between the houses of Mr. Toussie and his son. Mr. Zolotov and Mr. Toussie both claimed that the land was theirs, but in 2003 a state appellate court sided with Mr. Zolotov, who removed the fence and replaced it with a smaller one.

The decision did not erase the bad will Mr. Toussie had created. Neighbors, some of whom had moved to Manhattan Beach to be by the sea, still do not have easy access to the shore because of another section of Mr. Toussie’s fence that still stands. And they see Isaac Toussie’s legal troubles through the prism of what they call his father’s heavy-handedness.

“It’s not surprising that the son is following in the footsteps of the father,” said Irena Zolotova, 31, Mr. Zolotov’s daughter. “It caused my father a lot of indignation. It’s chutzpah. How do you try to take away somebody’s property?”

Some neighbors, including Sabina Gurshumova, 29, a homemaker who lives across the street from the elder Mr. Toussie, say the Toussies are “good people.”

“Sometimes they have us over for dinner for the holidays,” Ms. Gurshumova said.

Neither Mr. Toussie nor his son answered the doors of their homes on Thursday. But one Toussie family member said the picture of the father and the son was unfair.

“They are philanthropists; they build hospitals and save people,” said a woman reached by telephone who identified herself as a cousin, Marie Torgueman. She cited in particular Robert Toussie’s donations to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital but said both father and son were involved in charitable activities.

While a president has unfettered authority to grant a pardon for any reason he wishes, the suggestion of a linkage to political donations has proved controversial in the past. The most notorious case in recent years was President Bill Clinton’s 2001 pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had donated $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library.

Experts on pardons said the White House faced a difficult decision on whether to find out if someone seeking a pardon had made political contributions.

On the one hand, the president’s advisers would probably want to have that information to avoid the type of appearance problem that arose in the Toussie case. But if the White House did seek information on donations, it could be accused of tilting pardons toward those who had given money.

“I would want to make sure that anything that’s potentially embarrassing to the president, he ought to know about it in making the decision,” said Margaret Love, a pardon lawyer at the Justice Department in the Clinton administration.

Alain Delaquérière, Mick Meenan and Liz Robbins contributed reporting.

This article, A Father, a Son, and a Short-Lived Presidential Pardon, first appeared in The New York Times

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


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