As governor of Texas, Rick Perry has allowed the executions of 238 people, including at least one, Cameron Todd Willingham, who may have been innocent. Perry has turned away the majority of applicants recommended for a pardon by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Still, Perry’s record of clemency is more generous than Mitt Romney’s. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney refused to grant a single pardon.
Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, so Romney never faced that ultimate decision. But among the pardon applicants Romney denied was a decorated veteran of the Iraq War whose only offense — at age 13 — was shooting another child with a BB gun. (According to news reports, the shot didn’t break the skin.)
The veteran, Anthony Circosta, had been awarded a Bronze Star and wanted a pardon so he could become a policeman. Romney denied Circosta’s pardon application twice, according to an Associated Press article.
The contrast between Romney and Perry stood out in a ProPublica review of past clemency actions by Republican presidential contenders. We decided to take a look in view of our recent series on racial bias and inequities in the presidential pardons process.
The president’s power to pardon someone’s crime or to commute his or her sentence is absolute. But states handle clemency in a variety of ways. Some, like Perry’s Texas, temper a governor’s authority by requiring recommendations from an outside review board. In others, like Jon Huntsman’s Utah, clemency decisions are issued by a board and not the governor.
President Obama has kept the pardons system functioning in the same way it had under his predecessor, George W. Bush, by relying heavily on recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney inside the Justice Department. The office reviews pardon applicants, assessing their character and whether they have atoned for their offenses, among other factors.
Obama has granted relatively few pardons so far: 22 in his first three years in office.
Romney, who served as Massachusetts governor from 2003-07, has proudly advertised his record of granting no pardons at all, saying he did not want to overturn the decision of a jury. Romney received requests for 172 pardons and 100 commutations. The state’s Advisory Board of Pardons recommended that he approve more than a dozen, according to the Associated Press.
Approving a pardon can be risky for a governor with national ambitions. A Massachusetts furlough program that released a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, who went on to rape a woman and beat her fiancé, became a major point of attack against former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in his 1988 presidential contest with Bush’s father.
Romney’s refusal to grant a pardon to Circosta made headlines during the 2008 Republican presidential primary contest. Romney defended Bush’s decision to commute the prison sentence of Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of lying and obstructing a leak investigation.
A spokesperson for Romney declined to comment for this story. Circosta also did not respond to requests for comment.
Texas records show that Perry has routinely pardoned a handful of applicants every year — typically older people who had long ago committed minor offenses.
Texas is well-known for its executions. But Perry also has commuted the death sentences of more than 30 inmates, most of these in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring the use of the death penalty for those who committed their crimes as minors. They are serving life terms instead.
In Texas, the Board of Pardons and Paroles must approve all pardon applicants, a rigorous process that sends a small number of applicants to the governor for final approval.
Some critics have called Perry “stingy” with pardons. An analysis last year by The Texas Tribune found that Perry had granted pardons to only about 30 percent of those who had been recommended by the pardons board. But Perry has been less tight-fisted than his predecessor.
According to The Tribune, Perry has pardoned 178 people in his nearly 11 years in office. In his six years as governor, George W. Bush pardoned only 21.
Asked why Perry has denied clemency to so many applicants who were board-approved, Lucy Nashed, the governor’s deputy press secretary, wrote: “The ability to grant pardons is a constitutional power given to the governor. Gov. Perry reviews the facts in each case before making a decision.”
The records of other Republican primary candidates offer less of a barometer on pardons.
Because an independent board grants pardons in Utah, Huntsman never issued one. He did appoint Clark Harms, the current chairman of the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole, a former prosecutor who told ProPublica, “If someone made a mistake and has done everything they can to ameliorate and has lived a law-abiding life, people ought to be forgiven.”
As members of Congress, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum had no power to grant pardons but did have the ability to write letters in support.
Our pardons investigation found that Rep. Bachmann, R-Minn., had written an enthusiastic letter in support of granting a pardon to one of her campaign donors, Frank Vennes Jr. He and his family had given more than $26,000 to Bachmann and her political action committee.
“Granting a pardon to [Vennes] should be considered because pardons were intended to restore people to society like [Vennes], people who have demonstrated true reformation and for whom mercy is due because the legal system cannot deliver a morally acceptable result,” Bachmann wrote.
Less than a year after she wrote the letter, FBI agents raided Vennes’ home to look for evidence that he and an associate had been participating in a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. Vennes was charged with money laundering and multiple counts of fraud. Bachmann wrote another letter to the pardons office rescinding her support.
Rep. Paul, R-Texas, wrote a letter in support of Dr. Jeffrey Rutgard, a California eye doctor convicted of defrauding Medicare. “He fully served his sentence long ago and has devoted his life to charitably helping others ever since,” Paul wrote, calling Rutgard “one of the most compelling candidates for a presidential pardon I have ever seen.”
Our records request for pardons correspondence from members of Congress covered letters from 2001 to this year, a period long after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s years in office.
Notably, there were no letters from Obama, Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all of whom were in the Senate during those years.
The Gingrich, Paul, Bachmann and Santorum campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.