Libby pardon seen as risk for political grief

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Richard M. Nixon. Caspar Weinberger. Marc Rich.

Is President Bush willing to risk — on behalf of ex-White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. — the kind of political grief that pardons for those three men brought the presidents who granted them?

Mr. Nixon resigned the presidency over the Watergate scandal. Mr. Weinberger was the defense secretary charged in the Iran-Contra scandal. Mr. Rich was a fugitive financier and his ex-wife a major contributor to President Clinton.

All received presidential pardons processed outside normal channels. As in those cases, Mr. Bush would have to bypass the regular clemency process to pardon Libby for his four convictions last week for lying to investigators in the Valerie Plame CIA-leak case.

Such pardons historically have gotten presidents into political trouble.

A number of conservative politicians, bloggers and commentators, including National Review and Wall Street Journal editorial writers, want Libby pardoned — preferably now. Top Democrats have demanded that Mr. Bush pledge not to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

William Jeffress, one of Libby’s attorneys, said, “I believed a pardon for Scooter was appropriate last summer” when it came out that a State Department official, not Libby, was the initial source for a newspaper column disclosing Mrs. Plame’s status as a CIA employee.

White House spokesman Tony Snow has tried to dampen speculation, saying Mr. Bush is “careful” about pardons and takes the process very seriously. “He wants to make sure that anybody who receives one — that it’s warranted,” Mr. Snow said.

The Constitution grants the president absolute power to grant pardons, without approval by Congress or second-guessing by the courts. The only check on abuse is the risk of “the damnation of his fame to all future ages,” as James Iredell, one of the original Supreme Court justices, once put it. Some have run that risk.

Department rules require that pardon-seekers wait five years after conviction or release from prison, whichever is later, before applying. Mr. Bush has less than two years left in office, but presidents are not bound by department regulations.

The waiting period is designed to allow petitioners “to demonstrate they can live as productive, law-abiding citizens,” said Margaret C. Love, the department’s pardon lawyer from 1990 to 1997.

On occasion, the waiting period has been waived by the pardon lawyer or at the president’s request, she said. One example was a teacher involved in steroid distribution who the prosecutor said helped the government case and whose school district needed a pardon to continue employing him.

The pardon lawyer’s career staff verifies claims of rehabilitation and checks with the prosecutor, judge and victim. Complete and consistent evaluations help produce department recommendations that may shield a president from criticism.

But since Attorney General Griffin Bell delegated the supervision to subordinates in 1977, Miss Love said, the process has been “dominated by federal prosecutors, who tended to regard pardon as an interference with their law-enforcement responsibilities.”

Career prosecutors take a grave view of crimes against the system of justice, such as Libby’s perjury and obstruction-of-justice convictions. Although appointed by Mr. Bush as a U.S. attorney, Patrick J. Fitzgerald is a career prosecutor and voiced that viewpoint after winning the Libby convictions.

Many advocates of a pardon for Libby say he should never have been charged at all. He maintains his innocence while defense lawyers work on an appeal.

But a Justice Department manual says, “A petitioner should be genuinely desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication. … A petitioner’s attempt to minimize or rationalize culpability does not advance the case for pardon.”

Finally, Mr. Bush just does not grant many pardons. In his first year as Texas governor, he was burned. A county constable he pardoned for a marijuana conviction was caught months later stealing cocaine.

“I said, ‘Whoa’ because it was a pretty rough story,” Mr. Bush told a reporter. He went on to set a 50-year record low for pardons in Texas, granting only 19, including six convicts who proved their innocence.

As president, he’s granted just 113 in just over six years — the stingiest record among the 11 presidents since the end of World War II.

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