Journalism in the Public Interest

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.


Clarence Aaron (Courtesy of PBS Frontline)

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.

justice for all

Dec. 18, 2012, 1:59 p.m.

Thank God for Dafna Lizner. Could this be a new beginning for OPA?  Mr. Rodgers must be appropriately disciplined.  For him, I am sure DOJ will ensure the punishment fits the crime.  Too bad Mr. Aaron was not granted the same consideration.

Please review the Don Siegelman case, a former Governor of AL ,  who was convicted wrongfully.  His story is a travesty of wrong doing by the Justice Department and needs to be investigated, and he should be pardoned.
  Thank You
Martha Smith

Our territorial Supreme Courts are the first places that need thorough 2013-renovation.

I agree that Dafna Linzer is a God-send.  She is certainly to be commended for her passion and tenacity at getting the truth out.  I do hope the President will re-do the entire clemency process in this term, and commute the sentences of all of those non-violent offenders, most of whom are law-abiding citizens who have been needlessly taken away from their families and society because of this senseless “war on drugs.”

Is this a news article or a political observation? I’m still not clear on what Rodgers did. What “misrepresentations” were made?

I guess what I’m saying is if you’re going to pat yourselves on the back, please let the rest of us know what terrible things Mr. Rodgers (oh, the irony) did.

Whatever happened to “who, what, when, where and why?”

“Failed to accurately convey…” exactly fits your own description of the happening (event? occurrence? situation?)

Agnes Sievers

Dec. 18, 2012, 8:07 p.m.

When will our government show some compassion for this poor soul?

Mr. Gavin:  I think this quote from a previous Pro Publica article about the subject adequately describes the misrepresentation:

In a confidential note to a White House lawyer, Rodgers failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron’s immediate commutation.

Ms. Young: I realize I’m addressing journalism issues, not the issue at hand. But if ProPublica wants an identity as a purveyor of truth and not just another gotcha publication, it must do a better job of convincing me. This business of “look what we’ve done” smacks more of triumphalism than journalism. I’m using this forum because it’s the only way I know how to reach the editors.

Denis E Coughlin

Dec. 18, 2012, 9:33 p.m.

Possible Ronald L. Rodgers has investment in our corrupt Prisons for Profit industry.  This conflict of interest keeps demonstrating the sickness of our correction system.

Justice USA style

Holy cow…if the facts as presented in this article are even “substantially” true, then…well, the Department of Justice has pulled Ashcroft’s robe clear over Justice’s head.


Dec. 19, 2012, 1:33 a.m.

The Best JUST US that Money Can BUY! The Criminal’s JUST US System a Finely well OILED Money MOchine! Run by the Teflon DONS of The Global Elite Aristocrats Federalists? may the CREATOR save America from these TREASONOUS Thieves and Scoundrels?

Hiram Guevara

Dec. 19, 2012, 1:44 a.m.

Mr. President, set Mr. Aaron free, now…


Dec. 19, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

Without opining on THIS case—the facts of which I know nothing about (thanks to the article)—let me say that IF the purpose of the pardon power is to do JUSTICE in those LIMITED cases where it has miscarried (i.e., a sentence completely out of line with the societal damage done or to be discouraged, guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt, as by conviction, subsequently brought into doubt by newly discovered and previously unavailable evidence), THEN the TIME to issue pardons is in the FIRST WEEKS of your FIRST TERM (and THEREAFTER on a ROLLING BASIS as the presidential schedule permits), NOT on the LAST DAY of your SECOND TERM.  If you cannot easily JUSTIFY the exercise of the power in a given case and get right back to the nation’s broader business, then maybe you should ask yourself whether the exercise of the power in a given case was appropriate (i.e., Roger Clinton).  Justice delayed, in the form of a JUSTIFIABLE though delayed Presidential pardon, is just another form of justice denied.  Whether you agreed with his decision or not, Jimmy Carter campaigned on a promise to pardon every Vietnam draft resister, and he did just that IMMEDIATELY after being sworn in.

In response to those who might argue that a conviction for drug conspiracy (an endeavour that has foreseeable consequences of causing substantial loss of life, regardless of whether the indictment included charges of having caused any such loss of life) does not warrant the convict to suffer three life sentences, I ask how many life sentences should we have Bernie Madoff to suffer?


Dec. 19, 2012, 12:42 p.m.

Now now now ‘merica. Let’s not let our feathers get all ruffled. After all, the DOJ is real know, with stuff like chasing after mucho bucks from HSBC, or USB, or tryin to fend off Issa from nailing Holder to the wall for Fast and Furious..not to mention all the time it takes to iron out the details in those “secret memos” so Obombardier can murder ‘murican citizens with impunity while ordering the death of hundreds of innocent women and children who MUST be those terrible ole terrorists..after all, they were hangin around so they must be bad.  Oh..and how bout all that time they gotta spend prosecuting those poor Muslim shmucks who make a video which does the exact same thing as ole Jose “the torturer” Rodriquez…naw, we just gotta keep our heads in the sand and trust our good ole DOJ is doin righteous stuff..right? Not. THEY MAKE ME FRIGGIN PUKE.


Dec. 19, 2012, 2:30 p.m.

Anyone remember the 11th Hour Presidential Pardon to Marc Rich?

Michael Pitts-Campbell

Dec. 20, 2012, 11:25 a.m.

As was commented yesterday, we know NOTHING about why Mr. Aaron was convicted and sentenced as he was. This case is so low-profile that it’s not even in Wikipedia and ProPublica has done nothing to improve our knowledge. Fortunately (shudder) had the clearest explanation, from 2008. Is it possible that ProPublica believes its readers would be incapable of having an independent opinion unless ProPublica gave it to them? Because of their articles on housing, I was about to bookmark ProPublica for part of my daily news updates but now I need to think about it more.

While this particular article is light on substance, the reality is that America’s reaction to the alleged drug problem back in the 80s was poorly thought out and improperly applied.  Once again, a Republican president and his lackeys in the Congress were able to pull the wool over the eyes of average citizens, making us believe that only by imprisoning any and all having even a narrow connection to the drug business was the only way to keep America free.

Sadly, once the Congress passes legislation and it is signed into law, the Federal government gets myopic quite rapidly.  As the blinders go on, those who get caught up in the morbid fantasy concocted by the Feds become a mere afterthought.

Obama will not pardon this person and Rodgers will likely be punished by being forced into retirement where he will be able to collect his $100-thousand per year Federal pension for life while we taxpayers toil to pay for it.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Presidential Pardons

Presidential Pardons: Shades of Mercy

White criminals seeking presidential pardons are nearly four times as likely to succeed as people of color, a ProPublica examination has found.

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