Dale Critz Jr. had millions riding on his bid for a presidential pardon. Scion of a prominent family in Savannah, Ga., Critz was poised to inherit the luxury car dealerships his grandfather had built in one of America’s most historic cities.
But Critz’s past blocked his way. Years earlier, while learning the ropes at an unrelated dealership in Florida, he took part in a scheme to falsify loan documents for low-income car buyers. He pleaded guilty in 1989 to a felony — a conviction that could have prevented him from owning the family business. Many automakers do not let felons run their franchises.
So in late 2000, Critz embarked on a campaign for forgiveness. He enlisted the help of Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, a family friend, Georgia neighbor, and regular recipient of political donations from Critz and his family.
Over the next six years, Kingston personally pressed for Critz’s pardon, writing the Justice Department and twice calling the top pardon official, Roger Adams. Adams’s recommendations are first seen by the deputy attorney general and then sent to the White House for the president’s approval or denial. In Critz’s case, the deputy opposed the pardon, noting that Critz had lied on his pardon application and to the FBI during his background check, and the recommendation did not go to the White House.
A year later, with a new deputy in place, Critz got what he wanted. On Dec. 21, 2006, he became, at 48, one of the youngest people pardoned by President George W. Bush.
Since 2000, a total of 196 members of Congress — 126 Republicans and 70 Democrats — have written to the pardons office on behalf of more than 200 donors and constituents, according to copies of their letters obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the letters urged the White House and the Justice Department to take special note of felons whom lawmakers described as close friends.
A statistical analysis of nearly 500 pardon applicants during the Bush administration suggests that advocacy makes a difference. Applicants with a member of Congress in their corner were three times as likely to win a pardon as those without such backing. Interviews and documents show a lawmaker’s support can speed up a stalled application, counter negative information and ratchet up pressure for an approval.
Adams, who ran the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008, acknowledged the potential value of congressional letters. “If the official does know the person,” Adams said, “it gives it some weight.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that the agency would not comment on any individual cases but added that the process is not subject to influence.
“Any third party is free to express support for a pardon request, and those letters are part of the executive clemency file,” the spokeswoman said. “The title or position of the third party who expresses his support does not play a role in the review process.”
A ProPublica analysis of presidential pardons published Sunday revealed a pattern of racial disparities in pardon awards. The review found that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive pardons as all minorities combined. Congressional influence did not account for the racial disparity.
Of the 54 applicants with congressional support for whom ProPublica was able to determine race, 47 were white, five were black and two were Hispanic.
In the case of Critz, who is white, his family gave Kingston $10,100 in the years before his pardon application in 2000. Since then it has given the congressman an additional $13,050.
Neither Kingston nor any of the lawmakers who received campaign contributions voluntarily disclosed the donations in their letters to the pardons office.
For many members of Congress, a letter to the pardon lawyer is a routine constituent service. Pardons restore the right to own a firearm, sit on a jury or vote. Because felons are often denied professional licenses, a pardon can open the door to a new job or career advancement.
Bush began his presidency determined to prevent political interference in the granting of pardons. He had just witnessed a powerful example of how money and connections could mar the process: President Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated large sums to the Clinton Presidential Library and the Democratic National Committee. Bush decided to rely more on career officials in the Justice Department’s tiny pardons office.
'You Just Can't Go There'
Pardon applicants face extensive scrutiny. Officials review their personal, professional, marital and financial history. FBI agents interview friends and associates, even former spouses, and scour criminal records for offenses that applicants might have omitted. The Justice Department often solicits views from the sentencing judge and prosecutor.
But no one takes note of campaign contributions made to members of Congress or other public officials writing in support of applicants. Some officials say this is by design, that it would be inappropriate for the White House or the Justice Department to research an applicant’s political affiliation or history of donations.
“I truly did not want to know about campaign contributions and never allowed anyone on my staff to look at it,” Adams said, “because if you find that someone gave money, or didn’t give money, then you can’t have someone else wonder if that’s part of the reason why they were recommended for a pardon or denied. You just can’t go there.”
Congressional support does not ensure a pardon. In fact, the vast majority of applicants with congressional support failed, according to ProPublica’s review of letters from members of Congress to the Justice Department and the White House. About 10 percent of Bush’s 189 pardons went to people with congressional support.
“If a congressman called, you would listen to them,” said Kenneth Lee, a former associate White House counsel who reviewed pardon cases during Bush’s second term. “Sometimes it was a prominent politician. Other times it was an anguished mother with a son in prison. It helped to the extent that I would open the file and look again, but rarely did it add useful information.”
Almost from their first day in office, lawyers in the Obama White House began receiving calls from members of Congress advocating pardons.
“One of the problems with the process was the inequality of access,” said a former White House lawyer who asked to speak anonymously because he remains in government. “People with resources hire lawyers, sometimes former U.S. attorneys or former White House lawyers. It’s inherently unfair because the volume of applications is high and it’s easy to pull one out of the stack with a call.”
A Close Call
Critz’s father and grandfather built the family dealerships in Savannah into a multimillion-dollar business. In the 1980s, hoping to gain experience, Critz went to Florida to work at a dealership outside the family orbit.
Earning a promotion required selling as many as 20 cars per month. Critz, then in his mid-20s, fell in with a group of salesmen who developed a scheme to boost sales, records show. They placed newspaper ads appealing to customers with poor credit. When the potential buyers came in, the salesman put false income information on the loan applications. The deals went through and the salesmen met their quotas, but the purchasers were on the hook for payments they could not afford.
Critz pleaded guilty in 1989 to falsifying one such loan, cooperated with federal prosecutors and testified against his co-workers. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and allowed to live near his parents in Georgia.
By 1993, Critz and his wife, Debbie, were featured in Savannah Magazine as one of the city’s three “power couples.” Today, he is a well-known businessman and philanthropist who sponsors an annual half-marathon on Tybee Island in Kingston’s district. He chaired the local United Way campaign and was appointed to two local boards by the Savannah City Council.
Critz’s good works made a case for his pardon, and he had need — two factors the pardons office considers. The federal conviction stood in the way of his taking over the family franchises, which included BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Buick dealerships.
But federal officials investigating his application were disturbed by other aspects of his life, including a 1975 drunken-driving conviction and a 1982 arrest for allegedly standing on a car and being disrespectful to a police officer. On his pardon application, Critz failed to disclose those events, according to Justice Department memos. During an FBI interview, he also failed to mention that between 1998 and 2000, he had used a firearm to hunt birds. Agents had discovered that he had a hunting license during that period. Federally convicted felons are barred from possessing firearms.
In addition, Critz’s driver’s license had been suspended three times before his 1989 conviction. In the years that followed, he was cited for speeding or other traffic violations 10 times.
Kingston vouched for Critz in a 2003 letter to Adams. Describing Critz as an “exemplary citizen,” Kingston wrote, “I have known Dale for twelve years and believe that he deserves a pardon.”
The congressman also shared a copy of the letter with Paul Murphy, then associate deputy attorney general and one of Adams’s bosses at the Justice Department. Murphy forwarded the letter to Adams with a note: “Let’s discuss when you have a moment.”
In May 2003, Critz’s attorney, John Hogan, who had worked at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, called Adams to plead his client’s case.
Two months later, the U.S. attorney in Savannah, Richard Thompson, offered his unsolicited view to the pardon office — h e “wholeheartedly’’ and “unequivocally” endorsed Critz’s application. Former Justice Department officials said this was unusual because the case had been prosecuted by federal officials in Florida.
Persuaded, Adams recommended Critz for pardon.
In 2005, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey stayed up late one night to review pardon recommendations. He read Critz’s — and spiked it. “I am strongly opposed to this pardon,” Comey wrote in an e-mail to his chief of staff the next morning.
Comey was “troubled,” he wrote, by Critz’s “lack of candor about his prior convictions and his repeated driving offenses, as well as his illegal possession of a firearm. In short, he lied to the FBI during the pardon interview and lied to the Pardon Attorney on his application.”
Comey noted that Thompson, the Savannah prosecutor who wrote in support of Critz, resigned in 2004 after an internal Justice Department investigation determined he had misused his office to support a fellow Republican.
“A pardon is an act of grace, and so it was always important to me to see how the person conducted himself during the pardon application,” Comey said in a recent interview. “If you are going to pick a slice of life for them to be on their best behavior, this is it.”
Comey’s dissent could have been the end for Critz, but it proved only a temporary setback. Two months after Comey resigned from the department, Associate White House Counsel Brett Gerry was nudging Adams for more pardon candidates. Adams suggested Critz, who had not yet been formally denied.
In a memo to Comey’s successor, Paul McNulty, Adams vouched personally and in writing that the likelihood of Critz “ever committing another crime is almost nonexistent.” A copy of his positive recommendation for Critz was enclosed. Three months later, Critz’s pardon was official.
In an email, Critz said he did “not wish to be interviewed or to answer any questions” for this story.
Adams said he does not remember the specifics of the Critz case, only that it was a “close call.”
“If Comey recommended no, he probably had a good reason for it,” Adams said. “On the other hand, Paul McNulty recommended for it, and he’s a man of goodwill as well.”
Adams said seeking a pardon to inherit property or win a franchise was a compelling reason.
“If the need is for licensing or business ownership or to obtain a franchise, that will help and the office will try to push [the case] further,” he said.
Adams also said an applicant’s honesty in the process was significant. “In some applications, unfortunately, the person is just not that honest about the extent of involvement in the offense or dishonest about other things,” he said. “Cases that showed dishonesty like that probably won’t go in the right direction.”
But Critz’s did.
And the pardon worked. Today, Critz is the president and owner of the family business.
The Critz family’s campaign donations to Kingston took place over the course of many years. In the case of David B. McCall Jr., longtime relationships with elected officials also made a difference.
McCall, a former mayor of Plano, Tex., who later became a banker, pleaded guilty in 1996 for falsifying loan records at his local savings and loan. He served six months in prison, spent five years on probation and paid $100,000 in restitution.
In 2003, at age 79, McCall was dying from colon cancer. Citing health reasons, his sons embarked on an urgent quest for a pardon. They reached out to every high-placed official they knew, starting at the very top.
“We had a Texan in the White House,” said McCall’s son David McCall III. “My brother Brian was in the state legislature. He had served and become well acquainted with the general counsel for the president, Alberto Gonzales, and he knew the president as well, so Brian took that half of it.”
David McCall III said he contacted Rep. Ralph M. Hall, who was then a Democrat, and two Republicans, Rep. Sam Johnson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Hall had known David McCall Jr. and his wife for more than 20 years. “My mother and father went to state Democratic conventions with the Halls years before,” the younger McCall said.
The family relationship with Hutchison went back further. The elder McCall’s sisters worked for Hutchison when she owned a candy company before entering politics.
At the family’s request, Hutchison and Hall served as character references for McCall in late December 2003. David McCall III said he believes the Texas Republicans also spoke directly to Bush about their efforts.
In the following weeks, the McCall family gave $2,500 to Hutchison, campaign finance records show. Hall received $1,350, including one contribution three days before he wrote a personal letter to Gonzales on behalf of David McCall Jr.. The McCall family had a history of donating to Hutchison and Hall predating the pardon application.
On Valentine’s Day 2004, McCall became Bush’s 12th pardon. The president personally called McCall’s son Brian with the news.
“He was given the pardon on a Saturday and died on Tuesday,” his son David recalled.
Ten days later, the McCall family gave Hall an additional $1,650. Hutchison received another $1,000 on March 11, 2004, records show. One year later, Hutchison received another $11,400 in political contributions from the McCalls. It was the largest amount of money from the McCalls in a single year to Hutchison, who has received $21,400 from the family in all. Hall has received $5,750.
“It didn’t have anything to do with the money they gave me,” Hall said. “I was in their district and expected them to support me, but that wasn’t why I supported his pardon.”
Hall, who switched parties in early 2004 to become a Republican, said he was a believer in forgiveness and had written on behalf of five other applicants.
Adams, the pardon attorney, said McCall’s request had initially gone directly to the White House, but Associate White House Counsel Jennifer Brosnahan referred it to the Justice Department for review.
“We did do it within two to three business days, including the FBI background investigation,” Adams recalled. It was an “easy case,” Adams said. “It was the only thing he had ever done, he was close to death, and so there was no chance he would do anything wrong again.”
But internal Justice Department records show that there were concerns about granting McCall’s request. Michael Savage, the assistant U.S. attorney who had prosecuted McCall, opposed the pardon. Savage said he spoke with McCall’s son and believed that the family and “a member of the Texas congressional delegation were attempting to circumvent the usual clemency process,” according to Justice Department records.
Matthew Orwig, then the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, initially opposed the pardon because normal procedures were not followed, a Justice Department memo states.
Facing a possible denial, the Justice Department agreed to a more thorough look.
It worked. The FBI completed a background check, though McCall was too sick to be interviewed. With the pardons office involved, Orwig changed his views and supported the application, according to Justice Department memos.
“It was handled fast because the White House wanted it handled fast,” Adams said in an interview.
McCall’s son David said that the family was grateful for the congressional support and that the money had little to do with it.
“I don’t think they were substantial donations in the scheme of things,” he said. “We had supported Hall and Hutchison for 20 years or more.” He said applicants of lesser means deserve the same treatment. “I think members of Congress should weigh in on pardons and they ought to help people back at home,” McCall said. “Sometimes justice fails us and there are inequities.”
Although the pardons office routinely denies applicants who claim they are victims of injustice, McCall said his father had been innocent. “We never thought he was guilty of anything,” he said, “and my father didn’t think he was guilty, either.”
ProPublica writer Jennifer LaFleur and researchers Liz Day and Robin Respaut contributed to this report.