President Bill Clinton granted Christmastime clemency Friday to 62 people, including a once-powerful Illinois congressman indicted for misusing taxpayer money and a friend from Arkansas ensnared in the corruption probe of a former Cabinet member.
Clinton gave pardons to 59 people, including Dan Rostenkowski, former Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Archie Schaffer III, a chicken company executive convicted as a result of the investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
The others who received pardons included 19 convicted of drug-related offenses, 13 convicted of fraud, and four convicted on tax charges.
In what the White House described as the first batch of clemency decisions by Clinton as he prepares to leave office next month, the president also commuted the sentences to time already served for three people, including two women who received long terms under federal drug sentencing guidelines.
Clinton’s pardon of Rostenkowski was unexpected.
“For Danny, Christmas came early,” said Thom Serafin, a consultant and spokesman for Rostenkowski in three of his campaigns.
David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant who advised Rostenkowski, said: “I think it was an appropriate thing to do. He certainly paid a heavy price already and I think this is a way of saying that however the last chapter ended, the 40 years of public service that he contributed were meaningful.”
Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two counts of misusing public funds in 1996 and served time in a minimum-security prison in Wisconsin. He was released from a halfway house in October 1997 after 451 days in federal custody.
He was not even eligible to request a pardon through the Justice Department, which requires that a person wait at least five years after completing a sentence before filing a pardon application. However, Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney said the Constitution gives the president broad authority to grant pardons.
Howard Pearl, a Chicago attorney who represented Rostenkowski during his criminal case, declined to say who interceded with the White House on Rostenkowski’s behalf.
The president’s pardon of Schaffer, an executive for Springdale, Arkansas-based poultry producer Tyson Foods Inc. was not as surprising.
Schaffer was convicted in June 1998 of illegally trying to influence Espy, then the agriculture secretary, by inviting him to a May 1993 Tyson party in Russellville, Arkansas. He was convicted of violating a 93-year-old law that prohibits bribing meat inspectors.
“I would have preferred to have been vindicated by the judicial system,” Schaffer said in a telephone interview. “We were prepared to continue battling that, but we’re pleased with this outcome as well.”
The president also commuted the sentences of three people, allowing them to be freed. The trio includes two women who got entangled in the drug crimes of others. Both women were subjects of a national campaign by women’s groups and opponents of mandatory minimum prison sentences.
One is Kemba Smith, 28, of Richmond, Virginia, who was sentenced to 24 years and six months in prison with no chance of parole for helping her boyfriend Peter Hall, head of a violent drug ring.
The other is Dorothy Gaines, 42, of Mobile, Alabama, who similarly received 19 years, seven months for her low-level role in a local drug ring. The men who ran the ring received more lenient sentences.
“President Clinton has shown mercy and integrity by releasing these individuals, who clearly aren’t the drug kingpins Congress intended to target,” said Laura Sager, director of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She urged Congress “to go even further and initiate a review and reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws when the new session begins.”
Before Friday, Clinton had granted 196 pardons plus 22 commutations.