WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee staffers vetting Eric H. Holder Jr.'s nomination for attorney general said Friday they are seeking testimony from the Justice Department's former pardon attorney as they inquire into Holder's role in the 1999 grant of clemency to members of a Puerto Rican terrorist organization.
The former pardon attorney, Roger Adams, told the Los Angeles Times this week that Holder pushed subordinates to drop their opposition to President Clinton's consideration of clemency in that case. The clemency application received strong resistance from law enforcement officials and the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which typically offers an up or down recommendation on such requests. But the request was backed by a few Democratic members of Congress, religious groups and President Carter.
Adams' statements -- and accompanying documents disclosed in the news accounts -- provided the committee with new information about Holder's role in the controversial case, said one GOP committee staff member who asked not to be identified.
The staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the topic, said the disclosures elevated concerns about Holder's independence in cases where there may have been political pressure from the White House.
Even as he spoke, the committee's Democratic majority released a list of former critics and well-known Republicans who endorse Holder.
Holder, a highly regarded former prosecutor who served as Clinton's deputy attorney general, is likely to be confirmed easily in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
But some Republicans, including the ranking GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, are intent on grilling the former deputy attorney general on his role in three Clinton-era controversies, including the clemency granted to 16 members of the FALN (the Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation) or the splinter group Los Macheteros. They had been convicted in Chicago and Hartford, Conn., variously of bank robbery, possession of explosives and participating in a seditious conspiracy. Most had already served lengthy prison terms.
Adams' interview with The Times revealed new details about Holder's role, including Holder's office ordering a neutral "options memo" on the clemency, which was prepared despite strong objections from Justice Department staff.
Adams said he was asked to testify by Republican staffers, "but I have informed them I have absolutely no interest in testifying, as there is no more that I can say" beyond what he said this week -- when he broke years of silence by telling the Los Angeles Times that he was pressed by Holder's office in 1998 to write the memo that effectively allowed Clinton to grant the commutations without appearing to go against Justice Department's wishes.
A spokesman for the Obama transition, Nick Shapiro, confirmed that Holder asked for the options memo that preceded the clemency. He said Holder acted appropriately.
On Friday, Democrats on the committee released endorsements of Holder from former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, a critic of some of the pardons and clemency decisions, and former Sen. John R. Warner (R-Va.). In a letter to Specter and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), former Atty. Gen. William Barr -- who served under President George H.W. Bush -- joined nine Republican lawyers and former officials to support Holder.
In a conference call with reporters Friday evening, Specter reiterated his interest in questioning Holder about the clemency case, the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, and Holder's decision not to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations of fundraising irregularities involving former Vice President Al Gore.