Whom Might Clinton Pardon?

A cheat sheet for the news.
Dec. 23 2000 12:30 AM

Whom Might Clinton Pardon?

With only a month left in office, President Clinton is reviewing the pardon applications of several high-profile criminals, including junk-bond king Michael Milken, Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Native American murderer Leonard Peltier, and Whitewater witness Susan McDougal. The Constitution allows the president, "except in cases of impeachment," to pardon citizens who have been convicted of federal crimes or who are in jeopardy of such a conviction. As this "Explainer" notes, one justification for pardons is to recognize atonement for past crimes through good behavior (the argument for Milken). Another reason—as explained by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 74—is to allow the executive branch to "check" the judicial branch when it suspects a criminal proceeding has been unjust (the argument for Peltier) or politically motivated (the argument for McDougal).

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Since becoming president, Clinton has granted 185 pardons out of nearly 2,000 requests. This rate, about 23 a year, is slow by historical standards. [Update Dec. 27: Clinton has pardoned nearly a hundred people in the past several weeks. On Dec. 23 he pardoned Archie Schaffer (below). He has now pardoned 280 people, a rate of about 35 a year. Update Jan. 22: On his last day in office Clinton pardoned 176 people, including Susan McDougal (below). As president he pardoned 456 people, a rate of of 57 a year.] The most generous pardoners were Herbert Hoover (346 per year), Woodrow Wilson (310), and Franklin Roosevelt (307). Since World War II, pardons per year have steadily declined—197 for Johnson, 168 for Nixon, 164 for Ford, 142 for Carter, 51 for Reagan, and 19 for Bush.

Here is a list of the most prominent pardon applications now before the president, in order of likelihood of success:

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1. Michael Milken

Milken rose to prominence in the 1980s as the king of "junk bonds." That is not illegal. But in 1990 Milken pleaded guilty to six felony counts in connection with insider trading. He paid a $1 billion fine and served two years of a 10-year sentence. After his release he violated his probation agreement, which forbade him from conducting major business deals. For that he paid a $47 million fine.

Milken's defenders argue that he committed merely technical violations and was prosecuted simply because he embodied the greed of 1980s Wall Street. Since his release he has become an active philanthropist and a public spokesman for prostate-cancer awareness. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who as a federal attorney helped direct Milken's prosecution, supports his pardon. (Giuliani said Milken came to his aid after his own diagnosis of prostate cancer.) Ron Burkle, a California supermarket titan who pledged $135 million to Clinton's presidential library, has lobbied the White House for a pardon. (Burkle attributes his success to loans arranged by Milken in the 1980s.) In the 1980s, Milken's now-defunct firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, was a large Democratic contributor. (Al Gore's first presidential campaign chair, Tony Coelho, resigned from the House of Representatives in 1989 for concealing the nature of a $100,000 Drexel bond.)

Will Clinton pardon him? Probably. The pardon is palatable to business leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Clinton could, however, be accused of selling his pardon for Burkle's contribution.

2. Archie Schaffer

Schaffer, an executive at Arkansas' Tyson Foods, was convicted in 1998 of giving illegal gifts to former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Espy was acquitted, and Tyson Foods Chairman Don Tyson was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for a guilty plea by his company. Schaffer was sentenced in September to a federally mandated one-year prison term.

Schaffer has the support of the entire Arkansas congressional delegation, which is half Republican, and of Arkansas' GOP governor, Mike Huckabee. Schaffer is a nephew of former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers, who made a speech supporting Clinton during his impeachment. Schaffer's wife, Beverly Bassett, was appointed by then-Gov. Clinton to a state board that oversaw Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the failed bank at the heart of the Whitewater scandal. Nevertheless, even the Whitewater fanatics at the Wall Street Journal editorial page favor a pardon for Schaffer. Last month Clinton pardoned Phil Winn, a Denver developer who had pleaded guilty to giving illegal gifts to Housing and Urban Development officials.