Justice for the non-rich

Posted: Feb 01, 2001 12:00 AM
What Can or should be done about former President Clinton's exit pardon of gazillionaire fugitive Marc Rich? Rich's attorney Jack Quinn (who also was Clinton's attorney) pooh-poohs as political the 17-year-old indictments against Rich for mail fraud, income tax evasion, racketeering and trading oil with Iran in violation of a U.S. embargo. That's choice -- a Clinton lawyer calling a Department of Justice action political, unaffected by the fact he had special access to pitch America's top pol on behalf of his on-the-lam Swiss-resident tax-evading client, whose ex-wife just happens to be a major Demo party donor. Some critics have suggested the government should refuse to admit Rich into the country on the grounds that he renounced his citizenship. No can do. A federal court ruled in 1991 that Rich "did not have necessary intent to expatriate himself when he took oath of allegiance to Spain and renounced his American citizenship before Spanish officials." You see, the object of Clinton's mercy told Swiss officials he was a U.S. citizen when it suited his interests. Ergo, Rich remains a U.S. citizen, eligible for a new passport. The House Government Reform Committee plans to hold hearings on the pardon. Hope springs eternal in Chairman Dan Burton. He saw Washington yawn at the selling of White House access, yet hopes the ennuieuses have it in them to bristle at the peddling of White House mercy. On the one hand, the investigation probably won't uncover more than we already know. Clinton so politicized the pardon process that he designated ace fixer Bruce Lindsey to be, as one House staffer who worked on pardons told me, "clemency central." As The New York Times reported, Clinton sent investigators the names of people he wanted to pardon so late it was a sure thing that they would not have time to dig up reasons to deny a pardon. On the other hand, hearings could send a message to future Justice staffers that if they abet Pardons for Patrons, they -- unlike their bosses -- could be subject to a public shaming. Former Justice pardon attorney Margaret C. Love believes that now-Acting Attorney General Eric Holder "did not stand up for the process." Not standing up for the process doesn't sound that bad -- until you think about some 487 federal prisoners who, with the support of Democrats like Michigan Rep. John Conyers, sought commutations because they were sentenced before a 1994 law allowed judges to bypass federal mandatory minimum sentences for some first-time nonviolent drug defendants. (Among his 170 last-day pardons, Clinton did include commutations for 21 low-level drug offenders -- a number that should have been a downpayment.) San Jose attorney Jerome Mullins represents some half dozen clients who served their time, but want a pardon. (They can tell potential employers the president pardoned them and maybe get a better job, own a gun.) Learning of Clinton's method, he asked, "Why am I spending all these hours filling out petitions and convincing my clients, who are just ordinary people, to be completely forthright and absolutely honest and candid about things they don't want to talk about very much if the petition is meaningless?" President Bush was right to put the kibosh on eager staffers' attempts to find a loophole that could be used to overturn the pardon. The pardon privilege is worth protecting. Still, Bush should do more. Already he has demonstrated grace and a desire to do things right. He says he wants to represent all Americans. What better way to demonstrate his good faith than to use the presidential pardon to benefit obscure Americans who did not find sufficient justice in the justice system? Or as Mullins put it, "If George W. Bush thinks he's a better man than William Clinton, in terms of justice, fairness and the proper exercise of the presidential pardon power, then perhaps Mr. Bush ought to demonstrate that."