Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama's pick for attorney general. (AP photo)

Eric Holder, the long-time Washington lawyer chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to be the next attorney general, was a central figure in the controversy surrounding the clemency petitions of 16 convicted terrorists during the Clinton administration.

Holder, who was deputy attorney general from 1997 until 2001, oversaw all of the requests for clemency filed during those years, including requests from former domestic terrorists, drug traffickers and a number of disgraced politicians.

Most notable among the petitions for clemency granted during Holder’s tenure is the request from 16 members of a Puerto Rican Marxist terrorist group, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by its Spanish acronym FALN, which engaged in a robbery and terror campaign in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico during the 1970s and 1980s.

The clemency petition, which was supported by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-N.Y.), Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), became the subject of fiery controversy after it was revealed that none of the convicted terrorists had renounced violence and that their victims had not been consulted during the clemency process.

The clemency petition was opposed by the FBI, the U.S. attorneys who had prosecuted the terrorists, and even the Justice Department’s own Office of Pardon Attorney – an office that was established to deal with the Clinton administration's overwhelming number of pardon requests.

As deputy attorney general, Holder was responsible for overseeing the investigations of the individuals filing for clemency in order to determine whether or not their requests should be granted by then President Bill Clinton, who possesses the constitutional authority to grant pardons.

A report issued by the House Committee on Government Reform on Dec. 12, 1999 states that senior Justice Department officials met with those who were asking for clemency for the terrorists, but the victims of the FALN were denied meetings.

“Victims were unable to get meetings with the White House or Department of Justice,” the report said. “Some had tried to schedule meetings; they were simply rebuffed. Activists seeking clemency did get such meetings.”

In fact, the report found that Holder met with the New York congressmen about the clemency petitions, once in November of 1997 and again in April of 1998.

Holder also played a central role in drafting the clemency report that was delivered to President Clinton – one that gave no clear recommendation as to whether he should or should not grant clemency to the separatists; a position that ran against Justice’s earlier recommendations against clemency as late as March 1999.

The congressional report criticized this ambiguous position, saying its reversal looked like the Justice Department was seeking to find a way to legitimize a legally suspect decision.

“By refraining from giving a clear recommendation, it is almost as if the Justice Department is doing the best that it can to bolster a decision that had already been made,” the report said.

The report went on to criticize Justice for apparently bending its own rules regarding clemency due to the politically charged nature of the requests.

“It appears that the Justice Department has bent and even changed its rules to accommodate this politically charged clemency,” the report found.

Holder, meanwhile, was also in charge when Clinton, on his last day in office, pardoned commodities trader Marc Rich who had left the United States in order to avoid prosecution for alleged tax evasion and violating the trade embargo with Iran. Rich's ex-wife Denise had visited the White House over a dozen times during Clinton's time in office, and contributed an estimated $450,000 to his library foundation, $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and more than $100,000 to Hillary Clinton's first bid for the Senate.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

By Matthew Cover