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Head of Pardons Office Withheld Facts From White House in Key Case

A Department of Justice Inspector General report concluded that the head of the pardons office may have mishandled the case of Clarence Aaron.

This story has been updated with more details and comments and was co-published with The Washington Post.

The head of the Justice Department's pardons office failed to accurately convey key information to the Bush White House regarding a federal inmate's plea for early release, the department's inspector general concluded in a report released Tuesday.

In overseeing the case of Clarence Aaron, the report found that Pardon Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers engaged in "conduct that fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President of the United States."

In a measure of the seriousness of the evidence against Rodgers, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz referred his findings to the deputy attorney general for "a determination as to whether administrative action is appropriate."

Rodgers's advice to the president, the inspector general concluded, "was colored by his concern ... that the White House might grant Aaron clemency presently and his desire that this not happen." The report includes excerpts of emails Rodgers sent to another Justice Department official expressing hope that Aaron's request be denied.

"The details that emerge from this report about the way the Justice Department handled my client's case shock me," said Aaron's attorney, Margaret Love. "Justice is long overdue for Clarence Aaron, and I hope the president will take immediate action to free him."

The pardons office has come under increased scrutiny in the last year since ProPublica and The Washington Post began reporting on race disparity in the selection of pardon recipients and the handling of the Aaron case. ProPublica's study showed that white applicants have been nearly four times as likely as minorities to be pardoned. Aaron is African American.

The review also showed that Obama has granted clemency at a lower rate than any modern president.

Rodgers, a career civil servant and former military judge, took over the pardons office in 2008. Despite calls for his resignation, he has remained in office. Nearly all pardon recipients are preselected by Rodgers and he personally reviews each application from federal inmates seeking early release. Under his leadership, denial recommendations have soared while pardons have been rarely granted.

Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had full confidence in Rodgers. Hornbuckle declined to reiterate that support Tuesday. He said Holder's deputy, James Cole, was reviewing the inspector general's findings and that "further comment would not be appropriate." The Justice Department refused requests for interviews with Cole or Rodgers.

The White House relies almost exclusively on Rodgers in deciding whom the president will forgive or release from prison. Asked whether the president also has confidence in Rodgers's advice, the White House declined to comment.

The inspector general began looking into the pardons office earlier this year following ProPublica's reporting on the case. The story revealed that Aaron had won crucial support for a commutation from the U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., and the sentencing judge there. But Rodgers, who opposed Aaron's release, failed to accurately convey those views to the White House. Acting on Rodgers's advice, President George W. Bush denied Aaron's request for commutation in the final weeks of his presidency.

Kenneth Lee, who served as associate White House counsel then, said that he would have recommended Aaron's immediate release from prison four years ago had he known of the views of the prosecutor and judge at that time.

Aaron was a 24-year-old college football star at Southern University when he was convicted in 1993 for his role in a drug conspiracy. Although Aaron was not the buyer, the user, the supplier or the dealer, he received a triple life sentence without parole, the stiffest punishment of anyone in the conspiracy. The severity of the sentence shocked civil rights groups and elected officials from both parties who rallied to support Aaron's quest for a commutation.

In July, the Obama administration asked the pardons office to review Aaron's current petition, which has been pending since April 2010. Aaron remains incarcerated at a federal penitentiary in Talladega, Ala., pending a decision.

Justice officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Rodgers has been removed from weighing in on Aaron's new petition.

Advocates said that is not enough. "Rodgers has to go," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "No one, least of all the president, can have any confidence that this pardon attorney is giving the president the unbiased information he needs to make clemency decisions."

Tuesday marked the second major inspector general's report on the pardons office in recent years. A 2007 investigation led to the removal of Rodgers's predecessor who engaged in inappropriate conversations about the ethnicity of an applicant born in Nigeria.

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