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House Panel Queries Attorney General About Pardon Office

The questions from the House Judiciary Committee follow ProPublica's investigation into the Justice Department's pardon office and a finding of racial bias against minorities.

The House Judiciary Committee has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to outline any plans for changes to the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the wake of a ProPublica investigation that found white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive a presidential pardon as minorities.

The committee's inquiries into the Justice Department office were included at the top of a long list of questions from Republican and Democratic members following Holder's appearance before the panel in December to testify on other matters.

The pardon-related questions were written by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who serves as ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security and represents a district where African-Americans make up more than half the population. “I am troubled by recent reports outlining persistent and significant problems at the Office of the Pardons (sic) Attorney,” Scott said in a statement to ProPublica. Scott said he is “awaiting a response” from Holder.

Each year, the pardon office sifts through hundreds of requests for presidential pardons, selecting a few for the president's signature. The vast majority of applications are discarded by the pardon attorney and never seen by the White House.

At his confirmation hearing in January 2009, Holder spoke at length about presidential pardons and lessons he had learned while serving as deputy attorney general during the presidency of Bill Clinton. “I think we have to work to improve the pardon process within the Department of Justice,” Holder told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In his questions to Holder, Scott wrote that ProPublica's stories on pardons, co-published with The Washington Post, showed “significant and persistent problems within the Office of the Pardon Attorney. You testified when you were confirmed that you would study the problems with the clemency advisory process and fix them. Please let us know what you have found and what changes you have made or plan to make,” Scott wrote.

Holder, who became embroiled in the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration, declined repeated requests from ProPublica to be interviewed about the pardons process. His deputy, James Cole, has also declined interview requests.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the agency has received the questions “and will respond accordingly.” Sweeney said the department is continuing to evaluate ProPublica's statistical analysis showing a racial disparity in pardons. During his two-term presidency, George W. Bush pardoned 189 people, including seven African-Americans. President Obama has pardoned 22 people, including two minorities.

ProPublica's analysis also showed that married applicants were twice as likely as single applicants to be pardoned and that an applicant with congressional support was three times as likely to succeed. Scott specifically inquired about the effect of political support on pardons.

Known as “Questions For Response,” the committee's lengthy list of inquiries, which included questions on a variety of Justice Department issues and programs, was sent to Holder on Jan. 20. The questions will be made public and entered into the committee record along with Holder's answers once they are received.

Scott provided his questions regarding pardons to ProPublica.

Questions for Attorney General Eric Holder

Following are questions about the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney sent to Attorney General Eric Holder by the House Judiciary Committee:

  • On December 3, the Washington Post printed an article that reported significant and persistent problems within the Office of the Pardon Attorney. You testified when you were confirmed that you would study the problems with the clemency advisory process and fix them. Please let us know what you have found and what changes you have made or plan to make.
  • It has been reported that the pardon attorney no longer assigns commutation cases to staff attorneys, and does not write a recommendation in the large majority of these cases.
  • How does this fulfill the Department's responsibility to advise the president about the merits of each case?
  • Doesn't this make the commutation process meaningless for most applicants?
  • How can the pardon attorney himself conduct a meaningful review of thousands of commutation petitions?
  • Even if most of these should be denied, if no one is really looking at them, how do you know each one is without merit?
  • We can all agree that no system is perfect. The legal system is no exception. There are mistakes. The Constitution gives the president a role in fixing such mistakes. How does this procedure help the president do that?
  • How does the pardon office identify the rare exception that deserves a closer look? Political support? Media attention? If so, is that the best way — the most fair way — to make these decisions?

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