In blasting the Justice Department's pardon office earlier this week, the agency's inspector general said senior department officials shared responsibility for failures in the case of Clarence Aaron, a federal inmate serving a triple life sentence for his role in a drug conspiracy.
The inspector general's report found that David Margolis, an associate deputy attorney general and among the Justice Department's highest-ranking career lawyers, had not properly overseen the work of pardon attorney Ronald L. Rodgers on Aaron's commutation petition in 2008.
Margolis was sent all the underlying information about the case — including new material showing that Aaron's application for release had the support of the sentencing judge and the Alabama U.S. attorney's office that had tried him — but did not read any of it, the inspector general's report said.
Margolis also did not read a memo from Rodgers recommending that Aaron's request be denied before it was sent to the White House. The inspector general's report found Rodgers' recommendation withheld critical information from the White House.
"The primary responsibility for the inaccuracies and ambiguity contained in the email that was sent to the White House ultimately lies with Rodgers," Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz wrote. "Nevertheless, we believe that the office of the deputy attorney general shares some responsibility for this error because the office of the deputy attorney general had ultimate responsibility for making the recommendation to the White House on the clemency petition."
The inspector general also found fault with the work of Margolis' then-assistant, Marc L. Krickbaum, apparently the only Justice Department official who reviewed Rodgers' recommendation to deny Aaron.
Krickbaum, referred to as "Counsel" in the inspector general's report, also edited a draft of an email the pardon attorney sent to the White House summing up his findings.
"We found that the Counsel should have done a better job of editing Rodgers' proposed email," the inspector general's report said, adding that the deputy attorney general or another supervisor "should have reviewed the contents of the email before it was sent."
The Justice Department declined ProPublica's request to interview Margolis for this story. When interviewed by the inspector general about his oversight of the pardon attorney, Margolis said he saw no problem with the way the Aaron case was handled.
The inspector general disagreed. "We remain concerned about the process that was followed," the inspector general wrote in Tuesday's report, noting that it "precluded any review of the merits of the pardon attorney's recommendation by the deputy attorney general or his delegates, including any significant changed circumstances," in Aaron's case.
Krickbaum, now a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, did not respond to requests for comment. He told the inspector general that he had followed procedures.
Aaron, a former college football star whose quest for clemency has attracted national attention, seemed to have a solid chance at winning release in the Bush administration's final days until Rodgers intervened.
Senior White House lawyers had asked for a fresh review of Aaron's case. Since his previous petition, which was recommended for denial, the prosecutor's office that handled his trial had changed its stance and thrown its support behind his request.
Yet Rodgers did not convey this to the White House when he recommended denying Aaron's application. Instead of writing a formal recommendation, the inspector general found, Rodgers skirted department procedures and wrote a brief email telling the White House that Aaron should be denied again since little had changed since his original request.
In the report released Tuesday, the inspector general said he referred his findings on Rodgers to the deputy attorney general — whose office has oversight authority over the pardon attorney — to determine if "administrative action is appropriate."
The Justice Department refused to say how its review was being conducted and if Margolis would be a participant in the process.
As of this week, Rodgers remained on the job. According to the inspector general's report, he maintains that, except for the Aaron case, he has followed agency procedures and written formal recommendations in other clemency cases.
The inspector general's report suggested a broader review of his office's work.
"We recommend that the office of the pardon attorney review its files to locate any other instances where its office relied upon a supplementary email to the White House counsel's office," it said.