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Politics, Race Play Role in Presidential Pardons, Investigation Finds

December 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
People who are white and well-connected are more likely to receive presidential pardons, a ProPublica investigation discovered this week. ProPublica's Dafna Linzer goes over the details of the investigation with Gwen Ifill.
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GWEN IFILL: A new investigation into what it takes to get a presidential pardon reveals that politics still plays a role, and that whites are four times more likely than blacks and other minorities to have their records wiped clean.

Here to talk about her story on that is Dafna Linzer, senior reporter for ProPublica, a nonprofit online news organization.

Dafna, so, tell us in a nutshell who benefits and who doesn’t.

 DAFNA LINZER, ProPublica: Yes, we were very surprised at the results.

So, white applicants, as you said, are nearly four times as likely to get a pardon. Hispanic applicants fared quite well when we looked at them as a group. But African-Americans fared the worst among the group.

Applicants who were married had a better shot. In fact, they were two times as likely to get a pardon. This is a pardons office that is looking at all kinds of stability tests and seems to favor married applicants.

What else did we look at? Congressional support. If you had a member of Congress in your corner, you were three times as likely to get a presidential pardon.

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s remind people, presidential pardons typically or often come at the end of a term. People at the end of the year come and say — make the case to the president, but often to other people. What’s the process really like?

DAFNA LINZER: Right.

Well, we examined actually the recommendations that the pardons office inside the Justice Department offers to the White House. They offer periodically. As you said, presidents pardon more at the end of the term. They pardon more around Christmas. There’s usually some Thanksgiving pardons. President Obama just pardoned five people.

But most people now apply directly through this pardons office. And that seems to be a result of the Marc Rich scandal that happened at the end of the Clinton administration, that Clinton had pardoned somebody who didn’t go through the regular process, Justice Department process.

GWEN IFILL: And was a big campaign — and was a big campaign donor.

DAFNA LINZER: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

DAFNA LINZER: Right. And it ended up proving embarrassing for the president and for the White House and led to hearings on the Hill about it.

And President Bush and his legal advisers had — President Bush was inaugurated just hours after that — after that pardon was put through. And they kind of hoped to avoid that. And they put all their kind of effort into the judgment of the pardons office in the Justice Department.

And having examined those judgments, this is where we learn that whites are favored by a factor of four.

GWEN IFILL: And the last high-profile pardon — or non-pardon in this case — as I recall, was Scooter Libby under George W. Bush’s administration. He refused to pardon him.

So, is there a list, is there a check box that this judicial office, this Justice Department office uses in making its recommendations to the president?

DAFNA LINZER: Right. Well, Scooter was another example.

Scooter Libby was a good example of somebody who actually didn’t go through the pardons office. He never applied for a presidential pardon. This was a personal request from the vice president to President Bush that was unsuccessful, although Bush did commute Libby’s sentence, so that he never had to serve prison time.

So, for that case, you wouldn’t have — you wouldn’t have the pardons office making a judgment. We looked at all the objective factors that the pardons office tells applicants they consider. There’s also, you know, numerous subjective factors that are not only hard to measure, but really hard to know how they’re applied, because they seem to be applied differently for very different people.

We found case after case of similar people with very similar criteria, nearly identical crimes. You know, they looked good on paper. They were active in their churches.

DAFNA LINZER: Go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us the story about the woman in Little Rock, the two women in Little Rock, Arkansas.

DAFNA LINZER: Right, another perfect example.

This was really remarkable, because they were from the same city, lived near each other. Both had committed tax violations. One woman who was African-American, a small business owner, owned her own salon, was accused of under-reporting her income on IRS filings over a course of four years. She fought it. Before trial, the government dropped three counts. She pled guilty to a single count of under-reporting her income and paid a $3,000 fine, pretty minimal.

The other woman and her husband were involved in a pretty large-scale tax fraud scheme to defraud the IRS. They filled out all kinds of false tax returns. They were looking to get close to $40,000 back from the IRS that they certainly didn’t deserve. She was convicted and got prison time. The African-American woman had a probationary sentence. They both pled guilty in court and, as I said, active in their churches.

The woman who was white was pardoned. The woman who was African- American was denied.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming…

DAFNA LINZER: When we found — go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: I was just going to say, assuming that this sort of things happens in part because of who you know, it happens because of however the pardon officer was feeling that day, is there — after your story came out — and you wrote two long pieces about this — are there people who — is there an outcry of any kind, or are there people who are saying this is not the way it should work, that Congress shouldn’t be able to pressure people to pardon others, when others just never get the same attention?

DAFNA LINZER: Right.

The congressional angle is really interesting. And I’m waiting to hear a little bit more reaction from that today, because it does create quite a disparity. And it also is Congress sort of interfering in this one constitutionally unfettered power of the president.

The outcry, I have to tell you, I’m very, very interested. I had wonderful cooperation. I interviewed former White House counsels and deputy attorneys general who served in five administrations. And they were just stunned by the results and by the story. And I think they were surprised at how they — little they really kind of knew about the process.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Dafna Linzer of ProPublica, thanks for all your good work.

DAFNA LINZER: Thank you, Gwen.