Criminal Justice

DOJ Inspector General Faults Pardon Attorney for Misleading the White House About Clarence Aaron's Clemency Petition

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On Tuesday the Justice Department's inspector general issued a report that criticizes Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers for mishandling a clemency application by Clarence Aaron, who is serving three concurrent (not consecutive!) life sentences for his involvement in a 1993 cocaine deal. The inspector general's office investigated the case at the request of Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) after stories by Dafna Linzer in Pro Publica and The Washington Post last May revealed that Rodgers had failed to communicate crucial information about Aaron's petition to the White House. The report confirms Linzer's findings, saying Rodgers "did not accurately represent the views of U.S. Attorney Deborah Rhodes in his e-mail to the White House recommending against a commutation of Aaron's sentence" and that he described the opinion of U.S. District Judge Charles Butler, who presided over Aaron's trial, in an "ambiguous" and potentially "misleading" way.

The Justice Department recommended against commuting Aaron's sentence in 2004, but toward the end of George W. Bush's second term the White House asked it to take another look. At this point two important factors had changed. Rhodes, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, where Aaron was prosecuted, supported commuting his sentence to 25 years, meaning he could be released as early as March 2014 (taking into account credit for good behavior). By contrast, her predecessor, David York, had opposed Aaron's petition. Judge Butler, who had been compelled to send Aaron to prison for life by mandatory minimum sentences, also favored commutation, in his case to time served (15 years at that point).

Yet in his email message to the White House, Rodgers described the turnaround in the position of the U.S. Attorney's Office as "a slightly revised recommendation" and said Rhodes believed "Mr. Aaron's commutation request is about 10 years premature." In fact, notes the inspector general's report, "the change was dramatic," and Rhodes never said Aaron's sentence should be commuted in 10 years. "The most reasonable interpretation of Rhodes' recommendation," the report says, "is that Aaron's sentence should be reduced to 25 years by granting his petition for clemency to that extent, not denying it with the understanding that it might be renewed in a decade." The practical difference between those two options, assuming credit for good behavior, would be four additional years in prison. Describing Butler's position, Rodgers said the judge "had no objection to commuting the sentence presently," which could mean letting him go right away (the option Butler favored) or making him serve several more years (Rhodes' recommendation). "The better approach," the report says, "would have been to make clear that Judge Butler did not object to a commutation to 'time served.'"

Kenneth Lee, the associate White House counsel who was dealing with Aaron's petition, told the inspector general's office that if he had known what Rhodes and Butler actually said, "the likely outcome would have been that he would have sent the clemency request back to the [Justice] Department and asked them to reconsider their recommendation that clemency be denied." The report suggests that Rodgers let his own opposition to Aaron's petition influence his description of Rhodes' recommendation:

We believe that Rodgers's characterization of Rhodes' position was colored by his concern…that the White House might grant Aaron "clemency presently" and his desire that this not happen….

Rodgers did not represent Rhodes's position accurately, and his conduct fell substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty that he owed to the President of the United States. We also believe that the language Rodgers chose to describe Judge Butler's views was ambiguous and risked causing confusion or a misunderstanding. We are referring our findings regarding Rodgers's conduct to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for a determination as to whether administrative action is appropriate.

The report also faults a DOJ attorney who reviewed Rodgers' email message, saying he should have done a better job of editing it for accuracy and clarity. It also suggests that Rodgers should have prepared a new memorandum in response to the White House's request for a fresh look at Aaron's petition rather than relyiing on a supplementary email message and that more-senior DOJ officials should have been involved in the process. "Instead," the report says, "in the name of providing the President with a recommendation in a timely manner, the Department truncated its review process and the result was that an inaccurate e-mail was vetted by a relatively inexperienced attorney in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General and was sent directly to the White House."

Linzer notes that "the White House relies almost exclusively on Rodgers in deciding whom the president will forgive or release from prison." With a gatekeeper like Rodgers at the Justice Department, it is not surprising that President Obama's clemency record has been exceptionally stingy, even compared to the unimpressive records of the previous four presidents. Yet last July, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed full confidence in Rodgers, who remains on the job, though recused from consideration of Aaron's latest petition. "Rodgers has to go," Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells Linzer. "No one, least of all the president, can have any confidence that this pardon attorney is giving the president the unbiased information he needs to make clemency decisions."

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  1. The report confirms Linzer’s findings, saying Rodgers “did not accurately represent the views of U.S. Attorney Deborah Rhodes in his e-mail to the White House…

    It’s not his job to accurately relay messages from U.S. attorneys to the president about pardons candidates.

    1. There’s undoubtedly a union rule about that.

      *gavel crack*

      Reinstated.

    2. Be fair, even if it had been accurately relayed, nothing would have been done about it.

  2. Amon Goeth: [Touching his reflection in a mirror] I pardon you.

  3. I don’t know what’s more worrying: the idea that nobody in the Obama Administration knows what they are doing, or the idea that everyone in the Obama Administration knows exactly what they are doing.

    1. They don’t know what they are doing, but they think they do. Possibly the most dangerous of all combinations–arrogant ignorance.

      1. Exactly, ProL. Arrogant stupidity, the worst of all possible situations. Just remember, folks: we have four more years of these incredibly dangerous clowns. Just think about that.

        1. You keep forgetting Biden in 2016. That pushes it up to twelve.

          1. You’re assuming the cult won’t go after the 22nd Amendment.

            1. No, I’m actually guessing they will. Seriously.

              1. I can certainly see them doing that. As you said, arrogant stupidity.

            2. That thought crossed my mind, but no way do they get a Constitutional amendment passed.

              1. I didn’t say they would succeed, I said they would try (or at a minimum start discussing it endlessly as a meme).

                1. “We just want to have a conversation about repealing the 22nd Amendment.”

                  1. “We just want to have a conversation about repealing the 22nd Amendment.”

                    A serious, national conversation.

        2. Perhaps they’ll accidentally not screw something up through their ineptitude?

          Maybe we should push for a five-year economic plan that allows capitalism to run rampant–just to fill the coffers, you know.

  4. “With a gatekeeper like Rodgers at the Justice Department, it is not surprising that President Obama’s clemency record has been exceptionally stingy”

    Oh, pull the other one!

    The reason the President has been so stingy with clemency is that he doesn’t want to take the political risks involved. It’s not because bad boyars are thwarting the good czar’s impulse to do justice.

    Maybe in this particular case the Pardon Attorney misled the Pres into denying a pardon, but you can’t blame disloyal subordinates for Obama’s entire record re pardons.

    Obama is willing to stretch executive power in the name of sending guns to Mexico, starting new wars, and drone-striking people abroad, but he’s too timid to use the clemency power which the Constitution clearly delegates to him. That might be controversial!

    Maybe now that they’ve found a scapegoat, Obama will have an excuse to start granting more pardons when needed. Or does he think that all is for the best in our wonderful federal justice system?

    1. Yeah, I can’t imagine that this guy is singly responsible for Obama not granting a single clemency…

      Obama is a purely political animal. A kid who grows up with the life-long ambition of becoming a government functionary has no interest in justice, he only has interest in power.

      1. Earlier Presidents managed to grant more pardons – and not just to people who had already served their sentences.

        The conventional wisdom is that the person you pardon today could become the next Willie Horton and cost you your re-election. So it’s totally not worth the risk. Plus the assumption that the system is fundamentally just and shouldn’t be disrupted, because that would cast doubt on the Top. Men. who are responsible for obtaining these sentences.

  5. Linzer notes that “the White House relies almost exclusively on Rodgers in deciding whom the president will forgive or release from prison.”

    I must have missed the clause in the Constitution that gives the pardon and clemency power to some hack in DOJ. And we are expected to believe that the Kenyan village idiot never noticed that in four years he had never once received a worthy clemency petition? He never wondered? Never woke up one day and thought “hey, it is amazing that no one who deserves clemency ever seems to petition for it.”? Even considering Obama’s admittedly low IQ and even lower level of competence, that is a bit hard to swallow.

    Mistakes were made, but no one of any importance EVER makes them.

    1. He doesn’t give a shit, John. He just does not give the slightest shit.

      1. Really? I am thinking that is probably a pretty good guess.

    2. I must have missed the clause in the Constitution that gives the pardon and clemency power to some hack in DOJ.

      We’re a nation of feminized men, not laws.

  6. Here’s the thing – there was a time when Obama was this radical guy who hated the establishment. That version of Obama must have reflected that not everyone put in prison by the establishment deserved to be there – at least not on the long-term basis prescribed by the law.

    Even if he wasn’t a libertarian, at least he was open to the radical critique of the justice system, which however exaggerated at least noticed that not all was well?

    How quickly that guy changed into the establishment, system-supporting apparatchik!

    1. And whatever weird theories his professors may have taught him at Harvard Law School, I doubt they were weird enough to say that the U.S. justice system was all for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and that letting people out of prison would simply throw off the perfect equilibrium which the system had managed to establish!

      1. I can assure you, Ed, no such thing was taught at Harvard Law when either of us was there.

    2. Here’s the thing – there was a time when Obama was this radical guy who hated the establishment.

      Was there? Or was he like the mainstream media whom(?) love the establishment, but might hate a passing administration.

      For instance, the media hated Reagan, but always, ALWAYS loved government.

      I’m just not convinced that Obama has changed at all. I believe that he’s what he always was: A life-long apparatchik.

      1. Obama was whatever was good for Obama.

  7. Even after the usual Reason kick in the nuts, there is always Dear Prudence

    Dear Prudie,
    I am dreading my family’s annual Christmas get-together this year, but not for the usual reason. My mother, who’s in her 60s, her sister-in-law, and a female cousin are huge fans of the Fifty Shades of Grey books. They literally cannot be in a room together without discussing the book in great detail, regardless of who is around. They have all badgered me to read the books; however, any interest I had in reading them was squashed by their incessant and overly detailed accounts of the books. They all call me a prude, laugh at me, and deliberately try to cause me discomfort. I have been warned to not be “so oversensitive and uptight” and that they plan to discuss this openly at our family Christmas dinner in front of the children. Am I wrong to think they should be respectful of my feelings and others? Am I the only grown woman having this issue or are all women so crazy for those books they have lost all concept of appropriateness?

    ?Dreading the Holiday

    1. I miss the days when “shades of gray” meant appreciating the subtleties of life.

      Now it means you’re either into S&M, or a Confederate Civil War re-enactor.

      1. …or both.

    2. Okay that is hilarious. This lady should really read the books so she can at least make fun of her family.

      1. nicole read this and all the Twilight novels to “make fun” of others who read it. Riiiigghhht. We see right through you, nicole. RIGHT THROUGH.

        1. I can just see nicole in line for the Breaking Dawn midnight premier with TEAM JACOB written across her face, posting pictures of it all on facebook saying OMG you guys this is soooooo ironic!!!!1!!1!!!one!

        2. I haven’t read any of them. I read the first chapter of Twilight and a bunch of reviews of 50 Shades.

          1. Just make up really twisted crap that’s not in the books. Be depraved. Be very enthusiastic about it.

            Act all surprised when they say it isn’t there. Insist angrily that it is.

            1. Just make up really twisted crap that’s not in the books.

              Excellent idea. Especially if you can get Suge to help out.

              1. Have him hide out in the bushes ala Cyrano and feed you lines through a hidden earpiece.

            2. Actually, my understanding is that they’re not all that depraved.

              1. Sugarfree is just the person to fill that void.

          2. Do you really think I believe that? How many Mercedes Lackey books have you read?

            1. I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.

              1. (squints)

                You win this round, nicole. But only this one.

      2. We had two female writers where I work. One was awesome – she was actually libertarian, as well as being super cool. The other one was a major Twilight fan. I joked with the cool one I’d try to sleep with Bella to see if she was also into 50 Shades.

    3. Once a decade, every person should decline going to one of the major family get-togethers for self-centered reasons. It trains them to value your coming.

      I hit upon this when I was 16 and I opted out of Christmas. There was a furore, because I just said I didn’t want to ply. I was badgered as to why. I finally said that I was tired of what struck me as a farce, particularly gifts from relatives who clearly had no idea what my interests were and were going through the motions, and I felt that they were wasting their time and money on me, and that both they and I would be happier without the kabuki theater.

      The next year, many fewer presents, but the ones that came weren’t things I was throwing away two hours after opening (I kept them around just long enough to write the pro-forma thank you note)

  8. Why this world can not be calm down?

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