Report: Pardon Attorney Misrepresented Facts to White House in Clarence Aaron Case

December 18, 2012

FRONTLINE viewers met Clarence Aaron in our 1999 film Snitch, which explored how informants — people who testify to put others behind bars — have become a key part of prosecutors’ strategy in the drug war. ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer examined Aaron’s story as part of her ongoing investigation into presidential pardons. Read our 1999 interview with Clarence Aaron, and explore ProPublica’s timeline of his quest for clemency.

The U.S. Pardon Attorney failed to accurately share key information with the White House regarding a federal inmate seeking a commutation, the Justice Department’s Inspector General concluded today in a detailed 20-page report. The findings determined that in overseeing the case of Clarence Aaron, the pardons attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, engaged in “conduct that fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President of the United States.”

The inspector general’s office said it was referring its findings regarding Rodger’s conduct “to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for a determination as to whether administrative action is appropriate.”

The report also recommended that Rodgers’ office begin reviewing files to locate “other instances” similar to the Aaron’s case “to ensure that the information provided to the White House,” in clemency decisions accurately reflects the facts.

The Inspector General’s office began looking into the Aaron case earlier this year in response to requests from Congress that came in the wake of a story in May co-published by ProPublica and The Washington Post. The story revealed that while Aaron had won crucial support for a commutation from the prosecutor’s office in Mobile, Ala., and the sentencing judge there, Rodgers, who opposed Aaron’s release, had failed to accurately convey the full extent of those views to the White House. Acting on Rodgers’ advice, President George W. Bush denied Aaron’s request for commutation in the final weeks of his presidency, on Dec. 23, 2008.

Kenneth Lee, who served as associate White House Counsel then, said that had he seen the actual views provided by the U.S. attorney in Mobile, and U.S. District Court Judge Charles Butler Jr., he would have recommended Aaron’s immediate release from prison four years ago.

Just after our story was published, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rep. Bobby Scott, (D-Va.) called on President Obama to direct an investigation into the handling of Aaron’s petition and to reconsider his request for clemency. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) specifically requested an investigation by the Inspector-General, “in the wake of reports issued by the ProPublica and The Washington Post,” the report said.

Rodgers, a career civil servant and former military judge, took over the pardons office in 2008. Despite increasing scrutiny and calls for his resignation, he has remained in office. Under his leadership, denial recommendations have soared while actual pardons have been rarely granted.

Aaron’s story was part of a series by ProPublica, and co-published in The Washington Post, on the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The series, which included the first statistical analysis on pardon recommendations, found that white applicants are near four times as likely as minorities to be pardoned.

Aaron was a 24-year-old college football star at Southern University when he was convicted in 1993 for his role in a drug conspiracy. Although Aaron was not the buyer, the user, the supplier or the dealer, he was sentenced to a triple life sentence without parole, the stiffest sentence of anyone in the conspiracy.

Only Aaron and the cocaine supplier — who is scheduled to be released in 2014 — remain behind bars. The severity of the sentence shocked civil rights groups who rallied to support Aaron’s quest for a commutation, which began in 1999.

In July, the Obama White House formally called on the pardons office to act on Aaron’s current petition which has been pending since April, 2010. Aaron’s lawyer, Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, said in an interview that she submitted new information for the case in August.

Justice Department officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, have said Rodgers has been removed from weighing on a new petition Aaron has filed.

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