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Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 3:56 p.m.

Obama is stingy with his pardons

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder gave Washington a preview of how the last few months of the Obama administration are going to look, and they're going to be ugly.
Holder knows ugly. He was, after all, deputy attorney general when President Bill Clinton issued his infamous 140 out-the-door pardons to such unworthies as Marc Rich, who fled to Switzerland after federal prosecutors issued a 51-count indictment against him in 1983 for tax evasion, racketeering and illegal trading with Iran. Even though Rich was a fugitive from federal prosecution, Holder issued a "neutral, leaning towards favorable," opinion on the pardon; Rich's attorney also used to be Clinton's attorney.
Perhaps, having been pilloried for helping Clinton pardon a well-heeled fugitive and a group of unrepentant Puerto Rican terrorists, Holder decided that the second time around, as attorney general, he would advise the president that the best way not to abuse the pardon power is to barely use the pardon power.
Since 2009, President Barack Obama has issued a mere 39 pardons for offenders who have served their sentences and one lonely commutation. Obama has the stingiest pardon record of any modern president.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., brought up the pardon power when he urged Holder to champion a presidential pardon for former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison after he was found guilty of bribery. (As Cohen noted, 113 former state attorneys general from both parties urged the Supreme Court to review Siegelman's conviction.)
Holder responded that his office could not consider clemency while Siegelman has a pending appeal. Cohen then asked about an inspector general report that found that Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers had withheld information that could have led to the release of a first-time nonviolent drug offender sentenced to life without parole in 1993.
Holder answered that "corrective measures have been put in place so that kind of mistake would not happen in the future."
Cohen surmised, "It seems to me a corrective measure would be to replace Rodgers." No lie. Usually, attorneys general don't like subordinates withholding vital information from a president.
Federal mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in draconian penalties for anonymous black men -- such as Clarence Aaron, who may have lost his bid for a commutation because of Rodgers' omissions and will die in prison for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction unless he wins a commutation. As a candidate, Obama was highly critical of mandatory minimums, but as president, with the power to commute unjust sentences, his universal response has been to show no mercy.
No political upside.
"Hardly anyone's getting clemency," "Pardon Power" blogger P.S. Ruckman observed. Inmates seeking a sentence commutation stand "a better chance of getting hit by lightning."
In his memoirs, "Decision Points," former President George W. Bush wrote that he had felt the pressure to pardon so keenly that on Inauguration Day, he gave Obama one piece of advice: "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it."
Did Obama listen? Unless he decides to use his pardon power wisely and soon, there are only two ways this can end.
1) Obama feels the pressure as he is about to exit and grants clemency in order to please his cronies -- with maybe (or maybe not) a few politically unconnected inmates like Aaron thrown into the mix so that not all the pardons and commutations look like inside jobs.
2) Obama sees no political upside in using his unfettered pardon power to redress sentencing injustices. So he doesn't. Holder got burned, and Obama won't touch that stove.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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