- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

Historically stingy with pardons, President Bush is facing a flood of requests for get-out-of-jail cards or wiping criminals’ records clean on his way out of the White House.

Junk-bond king Michael Milken, media mogul Conrad Black and American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh are among the more than 2,000 people who have applied to the Justice Department seeking official forgiveness in the form of pardons or sentence commutations.

But with Mr. Bush’s term ending Jan. 20, some lawyers are lobbying the White House directly to pardon their clients. That raises the possibility that the president could excuse scores of people, including some who have not been charged, to protect them from future accusations, such as former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales or star baseball pitcher Roger Clemens.

Those who have worked with Mr. Bush predict that will not happen. The White House has declined to comment on upcoming pardons.

“I would expect the president’s conservative approach to executive pardons to continue through the remainder of his term,” said Helgi C. Walker, a former Bush associate White House counsel.

“There would also be a concern about avoiding any appearance of impropriety in the waning days of his administration — i.e. some sort of pardon free-for-all,” Ms. Walker said. “I don’t think that is anything that is going to happen on this president’s watch.”

Last week, Mr. Bush issued 14 pardons and commuted two sentences — all for small-time crimes such as minor drug offenses, tax evasion and unauthorized use of food stamps. That brought his eight-year total to 171 pardons and eight commutations granted.

That is less than half as many as President Bill Clinton or President Ronald Reagan issued over their eight years in office.

A pardon is an official act of forgiveness that removes civil liabilities stemming from a criminal conviction. A commutation reduces or eliminates a person’s sentence.

One Washington lawyer whose clients are directly pursuing the White House for pardons said Mr. Bush is expected to issue two more rounds of pardons: one right before Christmas, as is customary, and one right before he leaves office. The lawyer spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid hurting the clients’ chances.

Such an end-run around the Justice Department, which advises the president on who qualifies for pardons, signals that Mr. Bush may be open to forgiving people who are otherwise ineligible to apply.

Only people who have waited five years after their conviction or release from prison can apply for a pardon under the department’s guidelines. Criminals are required to begin serving time, or otherwise exhaust any appeals, before they can be considered for sentence commutation.

The department is considering a pardon application for Mr. Milken, who was convicted of securities fraud charges. Two politicians convicted of public corruption - former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, and four-term Democratic Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards - have applied for shorter prison terms. So has Mr. Lindh, convicted of assisting the Taliban, and Mr. Black, who is serving time for fraud and obstruction of justice.

Additionally, former U.S. Border Patrol agent Ignacio Ramos is applying to have his prison sentences reduced. Ramos and his colleague, former agent Jose Compean, were convicted of shooting and wounding a drug smuggler in 2005 and trying to cover it up.

Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said commutation applications for both Ramos and Compean were rejected in October because their cases were still in court. Ms. Sweeney said Ramos reapplied in November after he was re-sentenced.

Under the Constitution, the president’s power to issue pardons is absolute and cannot be overruled — meaning he can forgive anyone he wants, at any time.

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