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Report: Justice’s pardon attorney misadvised White House on clemency bid

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The Justice Department's pardon attorney inaccurately advised the White House regarding the clemency bid of a first-time drug offender sentenced in 1993 to three life terms in a drug case in which he was not the buyer, seller or supplier and received the stiffest sentence of all those convicted in the case, a report said Tuesday.

Clarence Aaron submitted a clemency petition in 2001, which was denied. Six years later, the White House asked the Justice Department to reconsider the still-pending petition, and according to the department's Office of Inspector General, Pardon Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers instead forwarded an e-mail supplemental to the earlier denial recommendation.

Both the U.S. attorney who oversaw the Aaron investigation and the sentencing judge supported a commutation of the sentence, but the inspector general's office said the pardon attorney "did not accurately represent the U.S attorney's views regarding Aaron's commutation petition" and "used ambiguous language that risked misleading the White House Counsel's Office about the sentencing judge's position on Aaron's petition."

Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, in the 20-page report, concluded that in overseeing the Aaron case, Mr. Rodgers had 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 primary responsibility for the inaccuracies and ambiguity contained in the e-mail that was sent to the White House ultimately lies with Rodgers . . . nevertheless, we believe that the Office of the Deputy Attorney General shares some responsibility for this error" because of a failure to edit carefully.

Acting on Mr. Rodgers' advice, President George W. Bush denied Aaron's request for commutation on Dec. 23, 2008.

Aaron, who is black, was a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., at the time of his conviction.

Mr. Horowitz has referred the report's findings regarding Mr. Rodgers' conduct "to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for a determination as to whether administrative action is appropriate."

Aaron, then 24, was convicted in 1993 on several federal drug-related offenses and sentenced to three concurrent life terms in prison. The Justice Department recommended in 2004 that the president deny Aaron's petition for commutation of sentence, but the White House took no action until 2007, when it requested that Justice reconsider the still-pending petition.

In connection with that reconsideration, both the U.S. attorney and the sentencing judge supported a commutation of sentence for Aaron.

Mr. Horowitz, in the report, concluded that Mr. Rodgers did not accurately represent the U.S. attorney's views regarding Aaron's petition in an e-mail he sent to the White House counsel's office in December 2008. He said the text of that email had been reviewed and approved by a relatively inexperienced counsel to the then-deputy attorney general.

The inspector general also noted that, in the email, Mr. Rodgers used "ambiguous language that risked misleading the White House Counsel's Office about the sentencing judge's position supporting commutation of Aaron's sentence."

The December 2008 email from Mr. Rodgers to the White House was the result of a decision by the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, at the pardon attorney's suggestion, to allow the Justice Department's initial 2004 "letter of advice" to the president to be supplemented by email, rather than providing the president with a new recommendation and "letter of advice."

"The decision to follow this abbreviated process . . . contributed to erroneous information being sent to the White House Counsel's Office," Mr. Horowitz said in the report, adding that either a new memorandum should have been prepared or the email should have been reviewed and approved by one of the senior officials within the Office of the Deputy Attorney General who had been delegated responsibility for such matters.

Aaron and two others were named in a four-count indictment accusing them of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 23 kilograms (50.6 pounds) of cocaine and crack cocaine, possessing 9 kilograms (19.8 pounds) of cocaine with the intent to distribute it, and attempting to possess 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cocaine with the intent to distribute it.

On Sept. 30, 1993, a jury found Aaron guilty on all counts.

In late May 2008, Aaron filed a motion for resentencing in Judge Charles S. Butler's court. While the judge denied the motion, he wrote, "Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable."

On Nov. 25, 2008, U.S. Attorney Deborah Rhodes wrote to the Justice Department, saying she "agree[d] that Aaron should receive a commutation of his life sentence." She recommended that Aaron be resentenced to a term of 25 years, saying he should "be resentenced to a substantial term of incarceration but not to a life sentence."

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