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Bush not ruling out a pardon for Libby

  Political and Legal  -   POSTED: 2007/07/04 18:15

One day after commuting the sentence of former White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, President Bush defended his decision and left open the possibility of granting him a full pardon, saying, "I rule nothing in or nothing out." Federal officials, meanwhile, said that Bush's action on Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, marked the only time that the president has sidestepped the normal Justice Department review process on pardons and commutations.

"I had to make a very difficult decision," Bush said at a brief meeting with reporters after visiting wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I felt like the jury verdict ought to stand, and I felt like some of the punishments that the judge determined were adequate should stand. But I felt like the 30-month sentencing was severe."

Bush's commutation wiped out Libby's 30-month prison sentence, but left intact his criminal conviction, a $250,000 fine, and the two years of probation Libby must serve. With some Republicans calling for a full pardon and many Democrats condemning Bush's action, the president said he does not regret making the controversial decision.

"I made a judgment, a considered judgment, that I believe was the right decision to make in this case," the president said. "And I stand by it."

While the commutation continued to generate heated debate yesterday, it also served as a reminder that presidents from both parties have made controversial decisions to grant clemency. Conservatives defending the Libby commutation point to President Clinton's 11th-hour pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich. On his last day in office, Clinton granted clemency to Rich, who faced prison time for tax evasion; his former wife, Denise, contributed $70,000 to a fund supporting Hillary Clinton's Senate bid.

Senator Clinton, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, issued a stinging rebuke of Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence. Leniency for Libby "sends the clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice," she said in a statement issued Monday.

Clinton, however, is continuing to deal with the fallout of her husband's decision to pardon a Tennessee couple who were represented by her brother, Anthony Rodham, who has said he talked to President Clinton about the pardons.

A US Bankruptcy Court in Nashville is slated next week to hear arguments that Rodham should pay more than $100,000 to the couple's estate; at issue is whether Rodham received the money as salary or as a loan that must be repaid. It is possible that Anthony Rodham could be called to testify about the matter, reviving questions about the role of Hillary and Bill Clinton in the pardon.

Lawyers for both sides in the case said they are in negotiations this week that could lead to a settlement.

Another of Senator Clinton's brothers, Hugh Rodham, represented two clients who received a pardon and a sentence commutation from President Clinton.

Her brothers' involvement in cases related to pardons and commutations her husband issued was an embarrassment to Senator Clinton during her first Senate bid and could resurface as she seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. She has denied playing a role in the clemency decisions.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for Clinton's presidential campaign, said there is no comparison between the Clinton pardons and Bush's grant of clemency to Libby. "What sets this incident apart," he said, "is the administration politicizing national security in an effort to intimidate its critics."

Libby, a White House insider and chief proponent of the Iraq invasion, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury and authorities as they tried to determine who leaked the name of a CIA operative -- part of a White House effort to undercut criticism of Bush's decision to go to war against Iraq.

After a federal judge sentenced him, Libby asked to remain free on bail while his case is on appeal. On Monday, a federal appellate court rejected that request, but Bush's commutation spared Libby any time behind bars.

At a press briefing yesterday, reporters asked White House spokesman Tony Snow whether Cheney -- who calls Libby a friend and who has enormous influence within the White House -- had pressed for Bush to commute Libby's sentence.

"I don't have direct knowledge," Snow said. "But on the other hand, the president did consult with most senior officials, and I'm sure that everybody had an opportunity to share their views."

A Justice Department spokesman said the Libby commutation is the only instance in which the president did not rely on a review from the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Bush issued 113 pardons but just three commutations of sentence before the Libby action, according to Justice Department officials.

Snow said Bush did not ask for a review of the case because, "It's not like people's memories are fuzzy about the details or the circumstances."

Bush has issued far fewer pardons and commutations than Clinton to date, although presidents tend to grant clemencies in bunches in their waning days in office. President George H. W. Bush, George Bush's father, granted 74 pardons and three sentence commutations during his four-year term, while President Clinton granted 396 pardons, 61 sentence commutations, and two remissions of fines during his two terms in office, according to federal records.

Both issued a number of controversial pardons: Besides pardoning Rich, the fugitive financier, Clinton pardoned his brother, Roger, who was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, while the elder Bush pardoned his former secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, of charges related to the Iran-contra affair.

Margaret Love, the Justice Department's pardon attorney under both the elder Bush and Clinton, said that the current President Bush has used his clemency power sparingly. Of the more than 5,500 commutation requests Bush has received, Love said, he has denied 4,108 of them, left more than 1,000 cases pending, and granted just four cases -- including Libby's.

Similarly, Bush has received 1,399 pardon requests, denying 1,022 and granting 113.

Though she is "agnostic" about the merits of Libby's case, Love said she represents a number of individuals seeking clemency and hopes the Libby action is a positive sign.

"I would hope that this is a harbinger of greater use of the power by this president," Love said. "He has not been very eager to use it for ordinary people. A lot of people have applied and a lot of people are waiting and a lot of people are serving excessive sentences."

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