No Comment — January 7, 2013, 12:14 pm

The Pardons Turkeys

An inspector general’s report finds, again, that the Department of Justice is strangling the pardons process

On November 20, 2012, President Obama acceded to the demands of schoolchildren across the nation by issuing commutations to Cobbler and Gobbler. The two turkeys were then transported to George Washington’s estate at Mont Vernon to live out the balance of their lives in federal custody.

But a dark fact shadows this holiday ritual: as it turns out, Cobbler and Gobbler received the only presidential pardons issued in 2012.  As presidential authority reaches an historic high-water mark, one of the president’s powers is on the verge of atrophying:  that of granting pardons in the interests of justice. 

It would be more accurate, however, to say that this power has been strangled by a Justice Department jealous for its own reputation, particularly in relation to doubtful and overzealous prosecutions. A few weeks ago, a report issued by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that complaints about the pardons office were well founded.  The inspector general stated that pardon attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, a Bush-era appointee, 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,” and recommended a further review for possible disciplinary action.

The IG’s report focuses on the case of Clarence Aaron, a black athlete who played an indirect role in a minor drug transaction and who became the victim of hyperaggressive prosecution and sentencing. While handling the case, Rodgers misrepresented the views of both the United States attorney who made a pardon recommendation and the judge who seconded it, resulting in the pardon’s being denied. Aaron continues to languish in federal prison.

In the report, the inspector general’s office also flagged manipulations of the pardons process by the DOJ’s senior career staffer, associate deputy attorney general David Margolis. A master political triangulator, Margolis is said by alumni of the pardons office to have intervened routinely to block pardons because he believed they would reflect poorly on the department’s prosecutions record.  Margolis is also the man who stood by and allowed the politicization of the appointments and removal process that led to the U.S. attorneys scandal; who blocked efforts to obtain an internal review of the prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman (a prosecution that sprang largely from Margolis’s own mistaken judgments); and who reversed recommendations by the DOJ’s professional-responsibility section to discipline the authors of the department’s torture memoranda.

As Dafna Linzer noted in her assessment of the IG’s report, this was the second internal review condemning and recommending disciplinary action for a pardons attorney in five years—the first occurred after Rodgers’s predecessor was removed for making inappropriate comments on the ethnicity of a petitioner born in Nigeria.  Reviews of the U.S. prison population point to a clear disparity in treatment based on racial background;  the pardons power presents a clear opportunity to correct this and similar injustices.  Yet, as ProPublica’s study of pardons reveals, the operations of the pardons office continue to be flecked with suspicions of overt or barely disguised racism—one standard is applied to wealthy, well-connected white men, and an entirely more hostile one is applied to minorities, particularly blacks.

The New York Times, reviewing the latest stench to emanate from the DOJ, says that it’s time the department was removed entirely from the process:

One simple and immediate way for the president to reinvigorate the pardons process is to choose a person of stature and energy — say, a federal judge — to steward his administration’s pardon duties. At the same time, he can end the department’s conflict of interest by replacing the pardons office with a new bipartisan commission under the White House’s aegis, giving it ample resources and real independence.

There are a number of pending alternative proposals that could bring a smidgen of justice to the process.  But the starting point must be to extract the real pardons turkeys, Ronald L. Rodgers and David Margolis, from a process they have effectively stymied for five years.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Number of cast members of the movie Predator who have run for governor:

3

A Georgia Tech engineer created software that endows unmanned aerial drones with a sense of guilt.

Roy Moore, a 70-year-old lawyer and Republican candidate for the US Senate who once accidentally stabbed himself with a murder weapon while prosecuting a case in an Alabama courtroom, was accused of having sexually assaulted two women, Leigh Corfman and Beverly Young Nelson, while he was an assistant district attorney in his thirties and they were 14 and 16 years old, respectively.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today