Talk in Washington at the end of any President’s term turns to the unbridled power that US presidents have to pardon people for having committed crimes. This year, chatter debates whether President Bush will give a pass to convicted former corporate executives, despite a national mood unlikely sympathetic to redemption for financial deception.
Executives seeking pardons reportedly include criminals from the technology-sector financial scandals that erupted during President Bush’s first term. The most infamous applicant is Bernie Ebbers, now serving a 25-year federal prison term for crimes he committed at the fraud-infected telecom giant, WorldCom. That company imploded in 2002 amid $10 billion worth of deceptions that were a primary catalyst of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, the law designed to reduce the likelihood of similar large scale corporate accounting fraud.
Other corporate criminals seeking pardons from President Bush come from yet earlier periods. They include the disgraced publishing magnate Conrad Black, and the 1980s-90s junk-bond king-pin, Michael Milken.
The Presidential pardon power can strike the ordinary civics student as bizarre. No doubt, President-elect Obama’s putative nominee for Attorney General is having second thoughts for supporting President Clinton’s late-term pardon of the tax-evading financier, Marc Rich. But Presidents face little risk of rebuke for such decisions.
The betting on whether President Bush will grant pardons to these corporate wrongdoers hedges two competing observations. On one hand, President Bush’s record on just use of law is weak (or mixed, at best), increasing the odds that pardons will be forthcoming. On the other, the country, in the early grip of a deepening recession with roots in perceived corporate financial deception, is unlikelyin in the mood to forgive or offer redemption to crooked business executives.
Net: the smart money is on pardons, for all three of these fellows–and perhaps thousands more.