Nine Notably Bitter Pardons

Michael Estrin Columns, Lawyer 10 Comments

It’s simple. Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time. At least that’s how we learned it back in 1L, and that’s how it works for most people who break the law. But at the end of every Presidency, we get a bitter reminder that some people don’t have to play by the rules because some people get a Presidential pardon or a commutation of their sentence.  Sometimes even a President.

In practice, a pardon means the removal of all disability or punishment, but we just think it means you got one over on Lady Justice. Ditto for a commutation. So in Lady’s defense, here are the nine most outrageous pardons and commutations that remind us why we remain bitter (or at least cynical).

1.  George Steinbrenner

In 1974, allegations surfaced that “The Boss” had gotten himself mixed up in some illicit dealings with the committee to reelect President Nixon. An indictment for obstruction of justice and illegal campaign contributions followed, and Major League Baseball ended up suspending Steinbrenner for 15 months and fining him $15,000.

President Ronald Reagan pardoned the Yankees’ owner, but fans will likely never forgive him for a laundry list of baseball offenses, the most recent of which was letting Joe Torre skip town. There is no pardoning in baseball, especially not in New York.  [The New York Times]

2.  Jimmy Hoffa

When he agreed not to “engage in direct or indirect management of any labor organization,” President Nixon pardoned Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, cutting short his 15-year prison sentence for jury tampering and fraud. That was back in 1971. Four years later, Hoffa would become the poster boy for disappearing acts.  Guess he would’ve been safer in prison.  []

3.  Richard Nixon

When the President does it, it’s not illegal, especially when his successor says it’s all good. While most pardons have the stink of nepotism, we’re just surprised that Nixon didn’t try to do it himself before leaving the Oval Office. That would’ve been a Dick move.  []

4.  Peter Yarrow

Remember the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary? Well, it turns out Mary didn’t do it for Peter. He liked young girls. Very young girls. In 1970, he was convicted of taking “improper liberties” with a 14-year-old fan. But he got a sympathetic ear from a guy who knew a thing or two about lust when President Carter pardoned him.  What’s surprising is that Roman Polanski didn’t try his luck with Mr. Peanut.  []

5.  Junior Johnson

This one just sounds like a bad idea for a Dukes of Hazard sequel. Junior Johnson was a NASCAR legend, but he was also a man haunted by his past, which included a 1956 conviction for making moonshine. After thirty years of suffering (all Johnson said he wanted to do was vote and travel abroad), President Reagan pardoned him.  Now, we know making moonshine is a crime; we just didn’t know that anyone did it after prohibition was eliminated. Was the store out of Wild Turkey that fateful day in 1956, Junior?  [The New York Times]

6.  John Forte

Who knew George W. Bush was so cool? Fugee producer John Forte did, apparently. After serving half of his 14-year sentence, Bush pardoned the hip-hop artist, who maintained his innocence despite the fact that federal agents caught him loading $1.4 million worth of cocaine into a taxi.  So, to be clear, a guy whose group, the Fugees, released an album called The Score says he never even tried cocaine, and he gets a pardon. Talk about getting by with a little help from your friends.  [WSJ Law Blog]

7.  Roger Clinton

Proving that he is, in fact, his brother’s keeper, Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, Roger, who had served more than a year in prison for distributing a gram of cocaine. But we’re pretty sure nepotism had nothing to do with it. Just like we’re certain Bill Clinton did not have sex with that woman.  [Chicago Tribune]

8.  Lewis “Scooter” Libby

Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative’s identity, but George W. Bush commuted his sentence before Libby served any time.  While a lot of people suspect that Bush pardoned Libby for partisan reasons, the truth is that putting a dude named “Scooter” in the pen is tantamount to a death sentence.  [Chicago Tribune]

9.  Marc Rich

Of all the pardons granted by Bill Clinton on his way out of the White House, none was more controversial than Marc Rich who was indicted in 1983 on charges of tax evasion and illegally trading oil with Iran. 

The case has been reported to death, but it resurfaced again as a thorn in the side of Obama’s nominee for Attorney General, Eric Holder, who played a role in the pardon process while serving in the Clinton administration. But what’s been underreported is that Rich enjoyed 15 years of legal representation from another guy on this list—Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was his lawyer from 1985 to 2000.  Now, that’s bipartisan politics in action.  []

Check out other lists, tallies and scores to settle in Bitter by Numbers.

Share this Post

  • Al Dickman

    I note there are no women on the list.  It makes me wonder how many women have been pardoned.  Does anybody know of any?  I can’t think of anyone famous (other than the Mayflower Madam).

  • Anonymous

    What ever happened to Ashlee Dupree?  She was the one getting boned by Elliot Spitzer.  Did she get a pardon for her efforts?

  • Alma Federer

    She should have gotten more than a pardon for doing Elliott.  That guy left his shoes and support stockings on while getting in on with Dupree.  Not that she’d want to be smelling his stinking feet, but please–shoes?  It was in the interests of justice that she was not prosecuted; especially since Elliot avoided prosecution under the Mann Act.  If he had kept his weenie in his pants when he went out of state, there would be no Mann Act violation.  I never understood why he could not find quality women in New York State.

  • Patty Hearst

    What, I didn’t make the list?

  • Anonymous

    Were you pardoned, Patty?  If so, you may not be as “bitter” as all of us thought you’d be.

  • BL1Y

    It’s not surprising that no women made the list given that women make up only a small percentage of convicts.

  • Small Town DA

    Most women will do ANYTHING not to go to jail.

  • Anonymous


  • The Lawyer Guy

    Looking at 1st names to identify gender, Bush Sr. pardoned (or granted clemency to) 9 women out of 77 total (12%), Clinton to 73 women out of 457 total (16%), and Bush Jr. to 16 women out of 186 total (9%).

  • charmer

    Why is Scooter Libby on this list?  He wasn’t even pardoned – his sentence was commuted, meaning he still qualifies as being guilty in the eyes of the law.  Big difference between the two.  Don’t lawyers (even bitter ones) know this already?