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President Bush owes Lil' Kim and Martha Stewart an apology. The famous rap artist Kimberly Denise “Lil' Kim” Jones spent 10 months in prison for lying to a grand jury. The business and media star Mrs. Stewart served five months in federal prison for lying to the FBI.
But fellow perjurer I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby,” Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, won’t serve a day of the 30-month sentence he received for lying to a federal grand jury, thanks to Mr. Bush’s selectively kind heart.
Libby should have got even less than that, if you believe his sympathizers on the political right who have called for a full pardon. It’s amusing to watch staunch, hang-‘em-high conservative editorial pages and presidential candidates go all squishy when one of their own has been convicted.
Mr. Bush stood firm, sort of. Instead of a pardon, he let stand Libby’s two years’ probation and $250,000 fine for lying to federal investigators of the 2003 leak that disclosed the CIA employment of Valerie Plame, an undercover officer.
That’s Mr. Bush’s idea of a compromise. He called the sentence “excessive.” If so, he should consider a similar commutation — or another apology — to Victor Rita, a North Carolinian whose very similar sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court less than two weeks earlier.
Rita, a decorated Vietnam and Gulf War veteran, was sentenced to 33 months for making two false statements to a grand jury about a parts kit he had purchased, allegedly to make an illegal machine gun.
Rita is a decorated North Carolina combat veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars with no prior criminal history. Seeking a reduced sentence, his lawyers argued he was in poor health, had performed valuable government service and could be in physical danger of reprisals in prison for criminal justice work he had performed in his government job. But the Supreme Court 8-1 upheld Rita’s sentence as “presumptively reasonable” within federal sentencing guidelines.
If Mr. Bush sees differently and acts on it, that’s his right as president. At bottom, sentencing is a remarkably arbitrary decision. How do you define justice? In days? Months? A lifetime? Cash? With as many deep-pockets contributors as he has funneling money into his defense fund, it is doubtful Libby will ever pay a penny of his fine out of his own pocket.
What about other big fish like presidential adviser Karl Rove, who also leaked classified information about Mrs. Plame to reporters but got off scot-free? Many Libby supporters as well as his detractors have raised that question; it is a fair one. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald decided he could not build a winnable case against Mr. Rove or Libby for knowingly revealing a covert CIA agent’s identity.
But that does not reduce the seriousness of Libby lying to investigators. Perjury is not a petty offense. Truthful testimony is the bulwark of our justice system.
Mr. Bush appears to understand that. If he has any reason to think Libby was railroaded, he should give the White House aide a full pardon. People appreciate a president who stands on principles, not just politics.
After all, this is the president who dubbed his 2000 campaign jet with the mouthful of a title “Accountability One.” That sounded like a little dig at the fuzzy ethics of then-President Bill Clinton. Early in the Plame investigation, Mr. Bush vowed through his spokesman to oust anyone who took part in the outing of Mrs. Plame’s identity. Yet Mr. Rove, who disclosed classified information about Mrs. Plame to two reporters, kept his job and Libby left only after his indictment in the fall of 2005.
Look who’s getting all fuzzy now.
Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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