The ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee has called on President Barack Obama to order an investigation into the case of Clarence Aaron, a federal prison inmate whose quest for a presidential commutation was the subject of a ProPublica investigation.
The investigation, co-published May 13 with the Washington Post, showed that Pardon Attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, who works for the Justice Department, withheld key information from the White House in 2008 regarding Aaron’s application.
Aaron was convicted in 1993, at the age of 24, for his role in an Alabama drug conspiracy –his first criminal offense – and sentenced to three life terms without parole.
Documents obtained by ProPublica show that Rodgers did not tell Bush White House officials that Aaron’s petition had won the support of the sentencing judge and the U.S. attorney’s office that prosecuted him. Acting on Rodgers’ recommendation, President George W. Bush denied Aaron’s request in December 2008.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., wrote to Obama on Tuesday, urging him to revisit the case.
“We request that you direct Attorney General (Eric) Holder to investigate these allegations,” Conyers wrote. “If the allegations are proven, we believe the case warrants your immediate reconsideration of his application for clemency.”
The letter was co-signed by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who also serves on the House committee charged with oversight of the Justice Department.
The move by Conyers and Scott came a day after three dozen organizations – including churches and civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the NAACP – sent a separate letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for oversight hearings into the pardon office.
That letter also referenced earlier ProPublica reports, co-published in December with The Washington Post, showing that white applicants were nearly four times as likely as minorities to receive a presidential pardon and applicants with Congressional support were three times as likely to succeed. ProPublica’s analysis was based on an examination of clemency petitions decided between 2001 and 2008.
“We urge you to investigate the activities of the OPA (Office of the Pardon Attorney) since at least 2001 and to hold an oversight hearing as soon as possible to review the serious questions that have been raised in these news reports,” the group wrote.
Justice Department officials have expressed concern about ProPublica’s findings concerning race and pardons and said in December that they were reviewing our analysis. Thus far, they have not disclosed the outcome of their review.
The department declined to comment on any aspect of the Aaron case, citing “privacy and privilege concerns.” Rodgers, the pardon attorney, also has declined repeated requests for an interview.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who also served as President Bush’s first White House counsel, said in a statement he was disturbed by our findings in the Aaron case.
When Bush reviewed applications for commutation, Gonzales said ”one of several factors he considered, based on my experience as his general counsel when he was governor and then later as his counsel in the White House, were the views of the prosecuting attorney and the sentencing judge. Assuming the reporting in the Post to be true, the failure by the pardon attorney to inform the White House of the views of the prosecutor and judge in the case of Clarence Aaron is troubling.”
The White House does not know the race of applicants for pardons or commutations, but the pardon attorney does. During Bush’s two terms in office, he pardoned 189 people, just seven of whom were African-American.
“The facts are clear,” said Gregory B. Craig, who served as Obama’s first White House counsel. Craig was speaking at an event earlier this month on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Constitution Society. “There is great disparity in those who receive pardons – white vs. black, rich vs. poor. Perhaps even more troubling is the indefensible disparity in the application of the power to comparable or parallel cases – the disparate treatment of citizens in similar situations.”
In the last four years, the pardon office has denied commutations requests from more than 7,000 other inmates, an average of seven denials every working day. Obama has commuted the sentence of just one federal inmate, an Illinois woman diagnosed with leukemia.
Craig said the president could shutter the pardon office through executive order and establish a new bipartisan review board.
Debra Saunders, a syndicated columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle, has long championed Aaron’s case. Last week, she called on Obama to commute his sentence.
“Barack Obama has a decision to make,” she wrote. “Rodgers and his ilk have been willing to let a young man rot in prison for the rest of his life. The only question is: Will the president let him get away with it?”