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Libby debate depends on what meaning of 'unpardonable' is

The Clintons' criticism of the clemency granted by President Bush is, well, awfully Rich, the White House says.

July 06, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The White House exchanged volleys Thursday with President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), over the question of executive clemency, with each side accusing the other of unpardonable acts.

Twice on Thursday the White House challenged criticism that the Clintons had directed at President Bush's commutation Monday of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence.

The Clintons sought to distinguish their record on pardons, accusing Bush of attempting to protect the White House from scrutiny in sparing former vice presidential aide Libby prison.

Firing back, the Republican National Committee posted on its website, GOP.com, "A Sampling of Controversial Clinton Pardons and Commutations." Clemency granted by President Clinton included 140 pardons on his last day in office in January 2001.

"I don't know what Arkansan is for 'chutzpah,' but this is a gigantic case of it," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said.

Meanwhile Libby, who had faced 30 months behind bars until Bush interceded, on Thursday paid a $250,000 fine imposed as part of his perjury and obstruction conviction, according to court records. The fine was paid from "personal savings," said his lawyer William Jeffress.

Friends and supporters of Libby have raised some $5 million through a legal defense fund. An advisor said the fund was not used to pay the fine.

Libby is continuing to appeal his March conviction in the CIA leak case.

Bush's commutation left intact the fine, as well as two years' supervised release -- a form of probation. The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, has said he is not sure the law allows for the imposition of probation when a defendant has served no time in jail. He has asked lawyers to advise him on the issue by Monday.

Snow said Thursday that Bush intended for Libby to be subject to the probation.

Clinton's burst of presidential clemency on his last day in office included pardons for his half-brother, who had been convicted of cocaine distribution, and for a businessman under investigation for money laundering who was represented by a brother of Sen. Clinton.

President Clinton's most notorious pardon was of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife, Denise, was a Democratic Party fundraiser and patron of the Clinton presidential library.

Marc Rich was also a Libby client in the 1990s when Libby was in private law practice. Libby has said he was not involved in the effort to obtain a pardon for Rich, and he indicated in congressional testimony in 2001 that he would not necessarily have supported such a move.

President Clinton draws a distinction between his pardons and Bush's moves.

"I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted," he told a radio interviewer Tuesday. "You've got to understand, this is consistent with their philosophy: They believe that they should be able to do what they want to do and that the law is a minor obstacle."

Sen. Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said the pardons granted by her husband were routine.

The Libby commutation, she said, "was clearly an effort to protect the White House."

"There isn't any doubt now. What we know is that Libby was carrying out the implicit or explicit wishes of the vice president, or maybe the president as well, in the further effort to stifle dissent," Clinton told the Associated Press.

Bush, in announcing his commutation decision Monday, called Libby's sentence "excessive." Federal data show that 30 months of prison was well within the range of sentences received by other defendants in federal court. Three-fourths of the people convicted of obstruction of justice last year were sent to prison, with an average term of 70 months.

Spokesman Snow was asked Thursday about plans by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) to hold hearings next week on the commutation.

"Well, fine, knock himself out.... And while he's at it, why doesn't he look at Jan. 20, 2001?" Snow said, referring to Clinton's 11th-hour pardons.

Snow defended Bush's action, saying, "Do we think we've done wrong? Do we think we've cut corners? The answer is no."

Several hours later, Scott Stanzel, a deputy White House press secretary, revisited that theme.

"The hypocrisy demonstrated by Democratic leaders on this issue is rather startling," he said. "When you think about the previous administration and the 11th-hour fire-sale pardons ... it's really startling that they have the gall to criticize what we believe is a very considered, a very deliberate approach to a very unique case."

Some legal experts said the two cases were hard to compare but neither act of clemency seemed very defensible.

Rich fled the country rather than face trial and was charged with crimes -- including tax evasion and trading with the enemy -- that carried more serious statutory penalties, they noted. The Libby commutation is problematic, they said, because his crime -- lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice -- goes to the heart of the administration of justice.

"It is like the pot and the kettle calling each other names," said former Assistant U.S. Atty. Martin J. Auerbach, who once oversaw the Rich case. "I think they were both wrong, for different reasons. They are both indefensible."

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

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