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Bush facing flood of pardon requests

Historically stingy with granting pardons, President George W. Bush is facing a flood of requests for get-out-of-jail cards or wiping criminals' records clean on his way out of the White House.
Bush Pardons
Roger Clemens throws a pitch during a workout with minor leaguers at the Houston Astros spring training facility in Kissimmee, Fla. on Feb. 28.David J. Phillip / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Historically stingy with granting pardons, President George W. Bush is facing a flood of requests for get-out-of-jail cards or wiping criminals' records clean on his way out of the White House.

Junk-bond king Michael Milken, media mogul Conrad Black and American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh are among the more than 2,000 people who have applied to the Justice Department seeking official forgiveness in the form of pardons or sentence commutations.

But with Bush's term ending Jan. 20, some lawyers are lobbying the White House directly to pardon their clients. That raises the possibility that the president could excuse scores of people, including some who have not been charged, to protect them from future accusations, such as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or star baseball pitcher Roger Clemens.

Those who have worked with Bush predict that will not happen. The White House has declined to comment on upcoming pardons.

"I would expect the president's conservative approach to executive pardons to continue through the remainder of his term," said Helgi C. Walker, a former Bush associate White House counsel.

"There would also be a concern about avoiding any appearance of impropriety in the waning days of his administration — i.e. some sort of pardon free-for-all," Walker said. "I don't think that is anything that is going to happen on this president's watch."

Has already issued 14 pardons
Last week, Bush issued 14 pardons and commuted two sentences — all for small-time crimes such as minor drug offenses, tax evasion and unauthorized use of food stamps. That brought his eight-year total to 171 pardons and eight commutations granted.

That is less than half as many as President Bill Clinton or President Ronald Reagan issued. Both were two-term presidents, like Bush.

A pardon is an official act of forgiveness that removes civil liabilities stemming from a criminal conviction. A commutation reduces or eliminates a person's sentence.

One Washington lawyer whose clients are directly pursuing the White House for pardons said Bush is expected to issue two more rounds of pardons: one right before Christmas, as is customary, and one right before he leaves office. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid hurting the clients' chances.

Such an end-run around the Justice Department, which advises the president on who qualifies for pardons, signals that Bush may be open to forgiving people who are otherwise ineligible to apply.

Only people who have waited five years after their conviction or release from prison can apply for a pardon under the department's guidelines. Criminals are required to begin serving time, or otherwise exhaust any appeals, before they can be considered for sentence commutation.

Pardon application for Milken
The department is considering a pardon application for Milken, who was convicted of securities fraud charges. Two politicians convicted of public corruption — former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., and four-term Democratic Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards — have applied for shorter prison terms. So has Lindh, convicted of assisting the Taliban, and Black, who is serving time for fraud and obstruction of justice.

Additionally, former U.S. Border Patrol agent Ignacio Ramos is applying to have his prison sentences reduced. Ramos and his colleague, former agent Jose Compean, were convicted of shooting a drug smuggler in 2005 and trying to cover it up.

Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said commutation applications for both Ramos and Compean were rejected in October because their cases were still in court. But Sweeney said Ramos reapplied in November after he was re-sentenced.

Under the Constitution, the president's power to issue pardons is absolute and cannot be overruled — meaning he can forgive any one he wants, at any time.

Already, Democrats and other Bush critics are warning the president against getting overly generous with his power of forgiveness. Of particular concern is whether he will issue pre-emptive pardons to protect allies and some government employees from facing future charges for carrying out his policies.

Some of those people could include officials who authorized or engaged in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists after Sept. 11, 2001. Critics want incoming President-elect Barack Obama to investigate possible war crimes.

Other pre-emptive pardons
Others to be pre-emptively pardoned might include advisers — Gonzales or other Bush administration lawyers, for example — who sanctioned potentially illegal policies or lied to Congress about them.

"If President Bush were to pardon key individuals involved in the misdeeds of his administration, from warrantless wiretapping to torture to the firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons, the courts would be unable to address criminality, or pass judgment on the legality of some of the president's worst abuses," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., wrote in a Nov. 20 op-ed for "Issuing such pardons now would be particularly egregious, since voters just issued such a strong condemnation of the Bush administration at the ballot box."

Gonzales' lawyer, George Terwilliger, said Justice Department investigations have proved its former top boss did nothing wrong.

"As has been made clear from the results of months and months of investigation of Judge Gonzales' tenure as attorney general, there is no basis to even suggest that a pardon is needed for anything," Terwilliger said in a statement. "It is time for this to end."

Clemens is under investigation for his congressional testimony when he denied under oath that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens was identified in former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's report on drug use in baseball. He has maintained his innocence and filed a defamation lawsuit in January against his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who claims he injected the seven-time Cy Young award winner with steroids and human growth hormone.

Though absolute, the president's pardon power does not come without risks.

Clinton's 2001 last-day pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich tainted Democrats who worked for him — including then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder who is now awaiting Obama's nomination to run the Justice Department.

Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, pardoned Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was indicted in the Iran-Contra arms scandal. Weinberger's indictment by a special counsel days before the 1992 presidential election is believed to have contributed to Bush's defeat.

The Nixon pardon
And President Gerald Ford narrowly lost re-election in 1976 after pardoning former President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal — the most controversial pre-emptive pardon in U.S. history.

In his most high-profile official act of forgiveness so far, Bush saved I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from serving any prison time in the case of the 2003 leak of then-CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. Libby was convicted of perjury and obstructing justice.

Libby, who was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, has not applied for a full pardon, Justice spokeswoman Sweeney said.

Margaret Love, former Justice Department pardon attorney under Clinton, said Bush has never seemed interested in flexing his power to pardon, going back to his days as Texas governor.

"His has been a very sparing, very regular and very conservative use," Love said. "There's no reason to think based on the pattern of his grants to date that there are going to be any irregularities or surprises at the end of his term."