Requests Come in for Last-Minute Pardons from Bush

The Justice department is getting flooded with a new wave of requests for pardons and commutations from convicted felons hoping for clemency from President Bush before he leaves office. A number of politically connected Washington lawyers have been retained to push the cases, but there are few signs that Bush will be open to anything resembling the last minute "pardon party" that marked President Clinton's final days in office.

Bush has taken a stingy stand on pardons, granting fewer of them—just 157, and none of them high profile—than any president in modern history. He has directed all hopefuls to submit applications to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which evaluates all requests using strict, longstanding guidelines, including a requirement that applicants have finished serving their sentences and expressed remorse. The office received a record 555 pardon requests during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and an additional 103 in the past month.

Washington superlawyer Ted Olson, who served as solicitor general during Bush's first term, has submitted a pardon request on behalf of former junk-bond king Michael Milken, who is seeking a pardon for his 1990 securities-fraud conviction. Other commutation applicants include Marion Jones, the Olympic sprinter who was convicted of lying about steroid use, and John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," now serving 20 years for providing material support to a terrorist organization.

The strict guidelines are already causing political headaches. Among rejected applicants for commutation were Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos, two former U.S. Border Patrol agents whose convictions for shooting a Mexican drug dealer have become a lightning rod in the illegal immigration debate. Their requests were recently "closed without action" because they haven't yet served out their prison terms, Justice spokesman Ian McCaleb told NEWSWEEK. However, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and California Sen. Diane Feinstein have written letters urging Bush to commute their sentences.

Trickier still is how Bush will handle requests from former members of his administration. McCaleb said Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, whose prison sentence for lying in the CIA leak case was commuted by Bush last year, has not submitted a pardon request to Justice. But speculation is rampant that Libby's allies will press Bush for one. There is also talk that Bush will be asked to grant prospective pardons for CIA officers and others who played a part in the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques in the war on terror. According to one legal source, who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitive nature, White House counsel Fred Fielding has warned applicants the president is likely to frown on "political pardons." But another Washington lawyer, who also asked not to be identified because he represents a pardon applicant, said Bush might be more open to considering pardons for CIA officers because they were executing his policies. (There is no indication anyone involved in interrogations has sought a pardon.) "We don't comment on the pardon process," said White House spokesman Carlton Carroll.