Saturday, November 27, 2021

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Stray Thoughts

There’s more to pardons than pundits notice


If you are looking for something in government that can be quite messy, even under the best of circumstances, look no further than the power that allows presidents to issue pardons.

I’m not a member of the Donald Trump Fan Club, as my friends and readers can deduce. But President Trump is really not in the same league as many past chief executives when it comes to issuing pardons, in spite of what pundits would have us believe.

Yes, our president made some doozies — including just last week former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

Yes, Blagojevich solicited bribes and committed extortion in a strange scheme to sell his appointment of a replacement U.S. senator after Barack Obama was elected president. Yes, Kerik committed tax fraud and perjury over his dealings with contractors suspected of having ties to organized crime.

But Trump’s 25 pardons and 10 commutations pale in comparison to the approximately 150,000 pardons President Jimmy Carter issued to Vietnam War draft dodgers. Or to President Franklin Roosevelt’s 3,687 pardons during his four terms.

Prep Iowa

On the other hand, James Garfield and William Henry Harrison issued none. Of course, Garfield was assassinated six months after taking office, and Harrison died of pneumonia a month after his inauguration.

One common thread in many pardons has been controversy. Considerable controversy.

President Gerald Ford issued pardons to President Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal, to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and to Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a radio propagandist for Japan during World War II who was nicknamed “Tokyo Rose.”

President Bill Clinton’s most controversial pardon was not to his brother, Roger, who was convicted of cocaine possession.

It probably was the one Clinton signed during his last day in office for international business executive Marc Rich. Rich had fled the United States to avoid prosecution when charged with tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran during the U.S. boycott following the capture of 52 American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Fueling the Rich controversy were disclosures that his wife donated $1.5 million to the Democratic Party and to Clinton’s presidential library.

For all the criticism some pardons generate, there was more of a sense of righting a wrong when President George W. Bush commuted the life prison term of a Des Moines man two days before Christmas in 2008.

Reed Prior had neither deep pockets nor political connections. Following his arrest in 1995, the son of two Des Moines teachers was sentenced to life in prison for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute the drug.

Prior was not headed down the path of drugs when he graduating from high school in 1967. But drugs were a ready part of college life during those Vietnam War years. By the time he left the University of Iowa with a master’s degree and began a career selling computer equipment, he was smoking, snorting and swallowing drugs of all kinds.

Eventually, his drug use became a problem for the company he founded, so he quit to avoid harming the business. He turned, instead, to selling drugs to support his addiction.

That ended in 1995 when Des Moines police arrested him. He led them to his drug scales, $17,700 in cash and nearly two pounds of meth.

Prior pleaded guilty. It was his fourth drug conviction. But he had never spent a full day in jail, and he had never gone through drug treatment.

However, because of a tough law Congress wrote to punish drug dealers, the 45-year-old Prior faced spending the rest of his life in a 7-foot-wide prison cell — unless he identified his customers, mostly recreational drug users.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Longstaff told Prior, “I’m mad at you because you’re making me send you to jail for life, and I don’t want to do that.”

Six years later, in 2001, Prior’s father, Don, a retired football coach at Roosevelt High School, reached out to a lawyer who played football for him five decades earlier. The tearful dad needed help, he told Robert Holliday. Prior said his son was a drug addict and was serving a life prison term.

Prior told Holliday the family’s only hope was if Holliday could persuade President George W. Bush to intervene.

Holliday filed a request with the U.S. pardon attorney and asked that Reed Prior’s sentence be commuted. Five years passed but there was no answer.

Holliday talked about the case with anyone who would listen. He gathered letters in support of Prior’s release — people who believed the life sentence was unjust, people who were impressed Prior had gotten sober, that he had taken responsibility for his crimes, that he was teaching math and grammar to prison inmates.

Looking for a way to get Prior’s case in front of the president, Holliday reached out to Gov. Chet Culver to see if he could arrange a meeting with Bush’s staff.

In December 2008, a month before Bush left office, Bob Holliday walked into the White House with the lawyer who represented Prior on his last drug charge, the former U.S. attorney whose staff prosecuted Prior, and an attorney friend who had a maintenance job for Prior.

White House counsel Fred Fielding told the Iowans, “I think the system has failed this man.” But he added, “There’s only one person on the face of this earth who can do this: the president of the United States.”

Five days later, on Dec. 23, 2008, the prayers were answered. President Bush commuted Prior’s sentence, clearing the way for him to be freed after 12 years behind bars.

There’s a footnote worth mentioning:

Bob Holliday never knew his father, who was killed in World War II. His high school football coach was almost a stand-in father figure. Perhaps because of that, Holliday worked on Reed Prior’s case for seven years and never charged the coach or his family even one nickel. ♦

Randy Evans can be reached at

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