WASHINGTON – A former congressman who pocketed millions of dollars in bribes from defense contractors. A Republican fundraiser who paid handsome sums to illicitly lobby a presidential administration. An influential voice in conservative circles accused of duping donors who supported a border wall.
Donald Trump’s final batch of more than 140 pardons and sentence commutations, issued in his last hours as president, benefited an ignominious list of defendants whose swindles, frauds and public corruption made them unlikely candidates for executive clemency. The recipients included people who not only abused their own positions of power but who also leveraged well-placed connections to pursue pardons from a president willing to use his authority to bless patrons and friends.
“It wasn’t about draining the swamp. It was the swamp,” said Sanjay Bhandari, a former Justice Department prosecutor who in 2005 secured a guilty plea from Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the former California congressman who was pardoned early Wednesday despite having accepted more than $2.4 million in homes, yachts and other bribes in exchange for government contracts.
The White House cited his post-prison volunteer work, military career and the support he received from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally. But that support was troubling to Bhandari, who said it appeared that Cunningham and others in a “rogue’s gallery” of recipients benefited more from their proximity to power than from the actual merit of their cases.
“On a personal level, it’s hard to hold any personal animosity or venom toward the individual,” Bhandari said. But, “as a citizen looking at the process and looking at who has been chosen for a pardon and on what grounds — that’s what’s really disturbing.”
To be sure, presidents have broad discretion in their use of the pardon power and many have exercised it, albeit sparingly, on defendants to whom they have personal or political ties. George H.W. Bush pardoned Reagan administration officials implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a substantial donor.
And many of the names on Trump’s last list were conventional and non-controversial selections, including relatively anonymous drug offenders seen as having rehabilitated themselves during long stays in prison. Those types of defendants were also pardoned en masse by previous administrations.
Even so, “Trump has had a much higher percentage of his pardons be the sort of well-connected, personally connected-to-him kind of folks,” said Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt, an expert on pardons.
There were also notable omissions from the clemency list, not least Trump himself.
Despite speculation that the president might pardon himself in the face of potential legal jeopardy once he leaves office, and even though he had claimed that he had the absolute power to give himself one, Trump apparently opted not to do so. He also did not pardon any of his children or his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has faced an investigation in New York, though the status of that probe is unclear.
Other allies, though, got a boost.
For instance, joining Cunningham on the pardon list was Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. He was pulled from a yacht off the Connecticut coast in August and brought to Manhattan to face charges that he duped thousands of donors who believed their money would be used to fulfill Trump’s chief campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border.
Instead, he allegedly diverted over a million dollars, paying a salary to one campaign official and personal expenses for himself. His co-defendants were not pardoned.
The pardon was notable not only because Bannon has steadfastly asserted his innocence — the Justice Department pardon process values acceptance of responsibility — but because the criminal prosecution was still in its early stages. The pardon nullified the case while the trial was still months away, eliminating the prospect for any punishment for Bannon.
Another recipient was Elliott Broidy, a major Trump fundraiser and former Republican National Committee deputy finance chairman. Prosecutors said Broidy collected millions of dollars in a back-channel but ultimately unsuccessful lobbying scheme aimed at getting the Trump administration to drop an investigation into embezzlement from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and to extradite a Chinese dissident wanted by the government in Beijing.
He pleaded guilty last fall to acting as an unregistered lobbyist and was awaiting sentencing.
William “Billy” Walters, a prominent Las Vegas professional gambler who prosecutors said was worth millions and who was convicted in an insider trading case linked to pro golfer Phil Mickelson, had his sentence commuted. So did former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has served more than seven years of a 28-year sentence for corruption crimes that involved bags of cash from city contractors and kickbacks hidden in the bra of his political fundraiser.
In the final minutes of his term, Trump pardoned Al Pirro, the ex-husband of Fox News Channel host Jeanine Pirro, in a tax evasion case.
Cunningham’s case was especially eye-popping, involving $2.4 million in cash, trips and other gifts from defense contractors in exchange for government contracts. President George W. Bush rebuked him for the “outrageous" conduct, though that didn’t stop Cunningham from seeking clemency from Bush before he left office.
“It’s not often that the president of the United States comments on an ongoing case and this had that level of corruption, where even the highest officials in the land looked at this and said, ’This is deeply disturbing,” Bhandari said.
He added: “When you have something that is that disturbing, I think you need to have something that is really compelling to offset it, particularly given that there are thousands upon thousands of people who have very compelling circumstances who apply for pardons as part of the normal process who are not granted pardons with far more compelling facts” than Cunningham’s case.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.