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Bush rejected pardons for Duke Cunningham, Edwin Edwards and Michael Milken

The Justice Department confirms that on his last full day as president, George W. Bush also denied clemency for American Taliban John Walker Lindh and native American activist Leonard Peltier.

January 28, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — On his last full day in office, President Bush formally struck down the clemency petitions of junk-bond financier Michael Milken and some high-profile former politicians, including Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Edwin Edwards, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

The former president also denied petitions for two men who became polarizing symbols of their eras. One was John Walker Lindh, the young American serving 20 years in prison for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan at a time when it was fighting U.S. military forces just after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The other was Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist sentenced to two consecutive life terms in the slayings of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His standing application has been under consideration since 1993, current and former Justice Department officials said.

Those were among the 1,729 pardon applications and 7,498 requests for commuted prison sentences that Bush denied during his presidency. Bush left hundreds of cases for the next administration.

Such denials can be a serious setback for those intent on winning clemency. After denial, a petitioner must wait two years to reapply for a pardon and one year for a commutation of a prison sentence -- although they can circumvent the Justice Department and appeal directly to the White House whenever they want. A presidential denial also may make it politically more difficult for the next administration to approve the request, several current and former administration officials involved in the pardon process said.

Milken long has been interested in a presidential pardon, and his supporters nearly succeeded in obtaining one from President Clinton at the end of his second term in 2001.

Milken virtually created the junk-bond market, which helped fuel a wave of takeovers and mergers during the 1980s. He was convicted of securities fraud and spent less than two years in prison in the 1990s.

The former mogul from Encino has used his vast fortune to transform himself into a philanthropist. After surviving prostate cancer, Milken became a community leader in helping others understand and fight the disease. He also created the Milken Institute, which describes itself as an independent think tank devoted to creating a more democratic and efficient global economy.

Through it all, federal authorities remained steadfast in their opposition to a pardon.

Last summer, Milken retained Theodore B. Olson to press his case. A former Bush administration solicitor general, Olson also was Bush's lawyer in the Supreme Court case that stopped the Florida recount and assured his election in 2000.

Months ago, the odds of Milken getting a pardon had appeared to be in his favor, said some current and former Bush officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the process. But the mounting number of Wall Street and mortgage lending scandals may have made it politically unpalatable. Others said Bush simply did not want to pardon anyone convicted of financial crimes.

Milken had no comment Tuesday.

"He wants to keep his focus on his medical research initiatives, preparations for the upcoming Milken Institute Global Conference and several impending speeches to medical groups," said Geoffrey Moore, a senior advisor to Milken.

Bush did not make formal rulings on some other well-known figures, leaving their petitions alive.

The list includes former Illinois Gov. George Ryan; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, onetime chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney; Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst convicted of spying for Israel; media mogul Conrad Black; and telecommunications executives Bernard Ebbers and John Rigas.

In December, Bush also denied clemency for Justin Volpe, the New York police officer convicted of sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.

The chief of the Justice Department's office of the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, confirmed the clemency denials through a spokeswoman in response to queries from The Times' Washington bureau.

Bush granted far fewer clemency petitions than many presidents in recent history -- 189 pardons and 11 commutations. For the most part, those went to obscure federal offenders -- not the high-profile, politically connected applicants who had success with President Clinton and some of his predecessors.

Bush shortened the sentences of two former Border Patrol guards involved in a controversial shooting of a drug smuggler.

"He seems to go out of his way to deny the high rollers, the prominent people," one U.S. official familiar with the pardon denial list said of Bush.

The former president was "very proud" of not issuing pardons to the politically well-connected, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in an interview with CNN's Larry King.

"He said people who have gotten pardons are usually people who have influence or know friends in high places," a route that is "not available to ordinary people," she said, recounting an Inauguration Day conversation she had with Bush.

Among those whose influence did not help them win clemency was Cunningham, the former San Diego-area Republican congressman who pleaded guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. In 2006, he was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.

Another was Edwards, the colorful four-term governor of Louisiana who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on racketeering charges in 2001.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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