You may have seen an article on the front page of The New York Times recently talking about how associates of President Trump are enriching themselves by selling "consulting services" for those of us seeking presidential pardons. Attorneys who were close to Trump, former Trump campaign officials, and Republican lobbyists were charging tens of thousands of dollars and more to "present" a case to Trump and to ask for a pardon. It smelled like pay-for-play, and the system of simply going around the Office of the US Pardon Attorney was unprecedented. I was one of the people identified in the Times article as having hired a lobbyist.
In any normal administration, there is a hard-and-fast way for a person who has been convicted of a felony to apply for a presidential pardon. To be clear, a pardon is supposed to be "forgiveness" for a crime after a federal felon has served his time, completed any probation, and made good with his life. It doesn't erase the crime -- it just forgives it. What a convicted felon does is to fill out a form from the website of the Office of the US Pardon Attorney. That office refers the application to the FBI, which does an investigation to see if the felon has indeed repented and rebuilt his life, and then the Pardon Attorney makes a recommendation to the White House.
The problem is that the Pardon Attorney almost never recommends that a person be pardoned. This isn't a partisan issue. At the end of the Clinton administration, donors to the Clinton Foundation, like international fugitive Marc Rich, whose ex-wife made a sizeable contribution, found that they were on the pardon list. There are really two tiers of justice and rehabilitation here. There are poor people, who go through the formal process and are almost always denied a pardon. And there are people with money and access, who use that money and access to the president to have attention paid to their requests. I went through the formal process in 2015. I filed the pardon application with the Office of the US Pardon Attorney and was ignored. I received a denial more than a year later.
So when Donald Trump was elected president, and it became clear that he was unlike any previous president, pardoning people only because Kanye West and Kim Kardashian asked him to, I decided to play the game as best I could. My strategy was multi-pronged. My attorney identified a lobbyist who had been Trump's campaign manager in Florida in the 2016 race, and we arranged a meeting in the attorney's office in Washington.
The meeting went well, or at least I thought it did. The lobbyist bragged about her close ties to Donald Trump. She showed me her cell phone, which had Trump's cell phone number programmed in it, and she said that the president routinely called her late in the night to discuss politics. She claimed closeness to Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We ended up coming to a deal. I would give her $50,000 (which I had to borrow) with a promise of another $50,000 when I got the pardon.
She went silent as soon as the check cleared. I would call for an update every few months, only to be told the same thing: The White House political director was aware of my case. Kellyanne was supportive. Don't worry. The lobbyist was making inroads. It was all nonsense, of course. She didn't have access to Trump, to Kushner, or to anybody else who mattered in the pardon process. I had to find another way to get to the president.
When COVID hit in February 2020, a wealthy friend of mine called to tell me that he had ordered 500 million KN95 masks from a manufacturer in China. He said he'd give me ten cents per mask for each one I helped him sell. We would sell them in lots of one million. Easy money, I thought. In June, he called to tell me that he was close to a deal at the Pentagon to sell 150 million masks, but the deal was stuck in procurement. He asked me if I knew Rudy Giuliani, whom he wanted to hire to get the Pentagon contract unstuck.
I didn't know Giuliani, but I did know Bernie Kerik, the former New York Police Commissioner and Giuliani confidante who had served several years in prison for corruption. I got in touch with Kerik and he put me in touch with Giuliani's "people." We agreed to meet at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on July 1.
Giuliani and a business partner arrived at the Trump. I went with my friend and his business partner. The only item on the agenda was the masks. We asked Giuliani if he would go to the Pentagon with us to ask the Undersecretary of Defense to release the funds for the masks. Giuliani said that he wanted $1 million for the meeting, to which we agreed, and there was then a lull in the conversation.
I took advantage of that lull to ask Giuliani if he was willing to discuss my pardon application. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, he said, "I have to hit the head," and he got up and went to the men's room. His partner said, "Rudy doesn't talk about pardons. You'll have to talk to me. But Rudy's going to want $2 million." I laughed. "I don't have $2 million. And even if I did, I wouldn't spend it to recover a $700,000 pension." That was the end of the conversation.
I'm telling you this story to illustrate how pardons were done during the Trump administration. If you wanted a pardon, you had to go directly to the president. Every other president used the formal pardon process. The problem with that is that the system simply didn't and doesn't work. Under Barack Obama, 3,395 people applied for a pardon, for example. Two hundred twelve were granted.
There is a relatively easy solution to this problem. First, there has to be a bipartisan consensus that people convicted of crimes can be rehabilitated. That's an easy one. Second, there should be a consensus that people deserve to be rehabilitated. And as a practical matter, the Office of the US Pardon Attorney should be housed at the White House and not at the Justice Department. The Pardon Attorney should report directly to the White House Counsel and not to the Attorney General. There has to be independence from the prosecutors who have a vested interest in people not being pardoned.
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