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Congressional Letters: Power and Persuasion Don't Always Add Up to Pardons

Records obtained by ProPublica show that members of Congress weighed in on a wide variety of pardon applications, but having powerful friends was by no means a guarantee of success.

Records obtained by ProPublica show that members of Congress weighed in on a wide variety of pardon applications. Some were from constituents who enjoyed the support of the friends and clergymen. Others were from people whose crimes and notoriety made a pardon potentially controversial. But having powerful friends was by no means a guarantee of success.

The Tale of the 'Country Boy Surgeon'

In 2001, Dr. Leonard R. Collier of Winn Parish, La., approached Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., with an opportunity. If Cooksey supported his pardon application, Collier might reward him with campaign funding.

Collier was seeking a presidential pardon for his 1993 conviction on federal charges of bribing a public official.

In an August 2001 letter to Cooksey, Collier outlined his terms. He noted that he had recently joined the ranks of “the Republican Round Table with a total of $6,000 contribution to the Republican cause and upcoming elections.”

Collier wrote that “a word from you to President George W. Bush regarding signing my application would be very helpful.” To return the favor, Collier said, “this old country boy surgeon might be able to help your cause just a bit too.”


In a seemingly inexplicable moment of transparency, Cooksey forwarded Collier’s letter to the Office of the Pardon Attorney inside the Justice Department. It was released to ProPublica as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

Another Louisiana congressman, Democrat Chris John, forwarded the pardon attorney a letter of support from state Sen. Mike Smith, who described himself as a “life-long friend’’ of Collier.

The letters from local officials recounted the hardships the surgeon had suffered as a result of his conviction. “He is sixty-nine years old, but because of his mistake several years ago, he is enduring continuous punishment,” wrote Rev. Andre’ R. Howard, a city councilman from Winnfield, La.

State Sen. Smith described Collier as being “in a state of depression over the fact that he cannot get anyone’s ear” regarding his pardon application.

Records show Collier’s campaign contributions to Cooksey were modest. Less than three months after he wrote the letter, he gave $500 to the Louisiana congressman.

The letters failed to persuade the Justice Department or the president. Bush denied Collier’s request in 2003.

A Plea for an Executive

In his letter to President Bill Clinton in late 2000, Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., wrote that he had known Hal Greenwood for “at least 30 years, both professionally and personally.”


Nearly a decade earlier, Greenwood had been convicted of conspiracy, misapplication of funds, filing false reports to regulators, and racketeering. He was sentenced in 1992 to a 46-month prison term after the failure of Midwest Federal Savings and Loan, a collapse that cost taxpayers $1.2 billion.

Oberstar wasn’t the only one on Capitol Hill to back the former banker. Then-Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., wrote that he had “known Mr. Greenwood for many years” and was confident his “moral and ethical standards more than justify your consideration of his pardon application.”


Former Minnesota Gov. Arne H. Carlson said he had known Greenwood “from the '60s through the '70s,” and said the millionaire had shown courage by deciding to stay in the state after such a well-publicized financial bust.

“Bear in mind, he could well have escaped to the anonymous shores of Florida or California and spent his retirement in self-indulgence,” Carlson wrote in 2003. Instead, Carlson said, Greenwood became involved in civic activities in his community of Grand Marais, Minn., near the Canadian border.


Seven years after the application was filed, Bush denied Greenwood’s pardon. As is customary, no explanation was given.

Wrangling for a Pardon

Few politicians have pleaded as passionately and relentlessly for an applicant as Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who urged a pardon for his friend and former colleague, Mario Biaggi, a fellow New York Democrat. In 1987, Biaggi was convicted of taking unlawful gifts on behalf of a company seeking federal contracts. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Beginning in 1999, Rangel launched a letter-writing campaign that spanned three presidencies. In all, he sent 14 letters pressing for Biaggi’s pardon, each on congressional stationary that helpfully reminded readers they were dealing with the top Democrat of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel wrote to the White House, attorney general, pardon attorney, and even appealed to the Office of Management and Budget, telling the director that Biaggi was “a man with a big heart and a passion for public service.” The mailings confused at least one budget office recipient who scribbled on top of Rangel’s letter, “What is OMB role in Pardons?”


Undeterred, Rangel added a handwritten note to a Jan. 5, 2010, letter to President Barack Obama that said of Biaggi: “He’s really a great American.”


Rangel wasn’t the only politician to wrangle on Biaggi’s behalf. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; New York state Sen. Serphin R. Maltese; and former Sen. James Buckley, Conservative-N.Y., also wrote endorsements.

Throughout the process, Biaggi continued to maintain his innocence, a stance that officials say virtually dooms an applicant’s chances.

Bush denied Biaggi’s pardon on Jan. 19, 2009. He would not be eligible to reapply again until 2011.

A Rug Merchant of 'Strong Character'

When Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, pushed for a pardon candidate, he went straight to the top. Such was the case with his letter on behalf of John H. Feizy.

“Mr. President — I have met with Mr. Feizy and he is the type of person,” Sessions said in a handwritten note to President Bush, who “would best fit our policy needs to help.”


Feizy owns and operates a high-profile fine rugs company in Dallas. In 1993, he violated federal customs laws by smuggling Iranian carpets into the country.

Sessions described Feizy as "a man of strong character — honest, compassionate, charitable, and hard working." In a separate letter three years later, he listed Feizy’s philanthropy, which included working "to eradicate child labor in poverty-stricken Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Feizy is also a donor to the Republican Party and politicians. Since 2000, the businessman, his family and his business has contributed more than $14,000 to Republican candidates for state and federal office.

In 2008, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also wrote on Feizy’s behalf, praising his "philanthropic and community endeavors." All this acclaim didn’t succeed. On Jan. 19, 2009, Bush denied Feizy’s request for a pardon.


A Bottle of Wine with Your Pardon?

Former Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., knows his wine. He’s a co-founder of the Congressional Wine Caucus and a former winery owner.

He’s also an advocate for Fred T. Franzia, head of the California behemoth Bronco Wine Co. and proud producer of a slew of under-$10 bottles, including Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw brand, often referred to as "Two Buck Chuck." (No relation to Franzia boxed wine.)

Franzia, the nephew of wine mogul Ernest Gallo, is considered one of the most colorful and sometimes controversial figures in the American winery community. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to a fraud charge for misrepresenting wine he sold as being from higher-quality grapes.

In his effort to secure a pardon, Franzia hired former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love, who had entered private practice in 1997.

And Franzia wooed Radanovich. He, his family and executive at his business contributed a total of nearly $30,000 to the congressman and the Wine Institute, one of Radanovich's largest donors.

In 2008, Radanovich wrote to Fred Fielding, Bush’s White House counsel, that Franzia was seeking a pardon "because of the shame the conviction has brought upon himself," his family and his winery. "He would like to continue the long tradition of winemaking in his family without the stigma of his poor business practices," Radanovich said in the letter.


The plea was not enough. Bush denied Franzia in December 2008.

How Not to Win a Pardon

One way to undermine your advocacy for a pardon application is to commit a felony yourself. Such was the case for former Ohio Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat who was convicted on 10 felony counts of bribery, racketeering and fraud a year after he wrote letters in support of two Ohio men convicted of charges arising from their ties to organized crime.

A former lieutenant for the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department, Michael "Beef" Terlecky was accused in 1990 of taking bribes from mob figures. In a letter to the President Bush, Traficant called Terlecky "an honest and upstanding member of our society" who deserved "to have his name cleared."


Traficant also wrote a letter in support of the pardon application by Pat Traficant, a Las Vegas casino executive and recent character in the Discovery Channel's "American Casino." In 1974, Pat Traficant was found guilty of violating federal gambling laws in Ohio. In the letter to Bush, the congressman noted that Pat Traficant had served his sentence without complaint and was a "good family man."


One issue that James Traficant did not mention to the Justice Department: Pat Traficant was his cousin.

In the end, neither Pat Traficant nor Terlecky received a pardon. But Terlecky did try to help the congressman by testifying on his behalf at his federal trial on charges of filing false tax returns and exchanging free labor and materials on his Ohio farm for political favors.

That assistance didn’t work out, either. Traficant was found guilty and served seven years in prison.

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