Journalism in the Public Interest

Perry More Generous With Pardons Than Romney

Mitt Romney has boasted about granting no pardons as Massachusetts governor from 2003-07, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry has pardoned 178 people in his nearly 11 years in office.

Republican presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry (L) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney chat following a debate on Dec. 15, 2011 in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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.

As governor, Romney also introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty for some serious crimes — an effort that failed.

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.

In 2010, Perry pardoned nine people. One pardon was posthumous: Tim Cole had died in prison after being wrongfully convicted of kidnapping and raping a fellow Texas Tech University student.

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.”

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, passed along information about two constituents seeking pardons: Richard A. Winner and Michael S. Pecora.

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.

Correction (12/16/2011): An earlier version of this story said Perry’s 2010 pardons of nine people included “two men who served probation for unlawful possession of narcotics in the early 1970s.” In fact, Perry pardoned these men in 2004.

ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.

I don’t think Perry is necessarily showing more “mercy”.  The results of doing a web search for “innocent man Texas” might lead you to believe that Perry is just playing the odds that anybody imprisoned or on Death Row in Texas didn’t do it.

Here in flyover country we’ve known about the Bachmann pardon letter for years. Jon Tevlin first reported about the letter in the Star Tribune and Karl Bremer posted the actual letter (unredacted) in the Minnesota Independent. There’s a chapter about Frank Vennes in our book “The Madness of Michele Bachmann” published by Wiley.

They’ll need all the pardons they can get in 2012 when Obama retakes the country and can finally put them under. I expect to see a full Progressive Congress and we can finally have a workers’ Paradise! All those who have supported the NeoCons, see you all behind a fence.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Dec. 19, 2011, 2:35 p.m.

I was particularly touched by the statement that in 2010 Gov. Perry pardoned a man who had previously died in prison and was later found to have been wrongfully convicted.
Now wasn’t that a courageous executive decision—to pardon a wrongfully convicted dead man.
Stop bitching, Propublica, THE SYSTEM WORKS!

Salvatore DiChristina

Dec. 19, 2011, 2:55 p.m.

I wonder how many of those pardons were done for Republican political miscreants? How many were made for whites vs other nationalities? I wonder also at the total numbers of whites vs others reside in Texas prisons? I wonder, given the various prison populations what the ratio of those pardons are?

Why is the MSM will not show that Ron Paul is the only person running for the office of President will do what is nessary to bring about real change. For one the MSM has not reported the truth in many decades, they are bought off by the PE’s who will not give power even if it means saving our Republic from the police state coming at us so fast it will be over before Americans know what has happen. NDAA, Internet kill button & corrupt courts is SOP in NYC & across the USA. You want proof,read this The proof in the documents he points to as how the courts have been used to hold people with out a true reason & while at it steal their property, make sure they can’t get a attorney no matter how much money they have. In all what this points to , do you want to live in a police state or a Republic where the rules of law protects you from becoming a target just because you did not agree with what either polititcal party tries to pass off as what is good for you! It’s past time to see past what the MSM puts outs as truth & find the truth. Letting crooks go is SOP in the USA, look at the CEO’s of wall ST who remain free when they & the many polititions who should be in jail right now but passed laws to keep them away from the same courts system we would have to face if we did what they have done for decades. Get real folks & put the truth out to the people. I research all I post many times to ensure it’s true, I hope you look to what is more important to the future of all Americans.

Interesting to see if there is a connection between Gov Perry’s granting of pardons and contributions to his reelection campaign like every other pay to play option in Texas.

I think it would also be interesting to examine the race of the individuals pardoned or whose sentences have been commuted by Governor Perry. I think another factor that would also be helpful to examine would be the genders of the pardoned, if more men or women submit applications.

@ Dickp and Samuel this writer should have researched before publishing inaccurate information. Let me give it to you.

Art. 48.01. GOVERNOR MAY PARDON.  In all criminal cases, except treason and impeachment, the Governor shall have power, after conviction, on the written signed recommendation and advice of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, or a majority thereof,

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.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories