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Last-minute crush of pardons called unlikely

| Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009

George Washington forgave three men in 1795 for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion, making them the first three Western Pennsylvanians to receive presidential pardons.

The latest came two years ago when President Bush pardoned Patricia A. Hultman of McKean County, who served less than a year in prison for a 1985 cocaine conviction.

With one week remaining in Bush's presidency, political and legal experts are watching to see whether he will add to nearly 200 pardons and nine commutations he has granted since 2001.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to say whether anyone convicted in the Western District of Pennsylvania has petitioned for clemency. The president wouldn't comment on his pardon plans Monday during a White House news conference.

But those who follow the pardon process don't expect Bush to emulate his predecessor, Bill Clinton, by issuing hundreds of pardons on his way out the White House door.

"Based on President Bush's pardoning to date, I have no reason to think we will be in for any surprises at the end," said Margaret Colgate Love, a Washington lawyer who served as U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 through 1997.

The Constitution gives the president "power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." That power does not extend to state or international crimes.

Historically, presidents have not granted large numbers of 11th-hour pardons, though the trend is to grant more in the last year of a presidency, Justice Department figures show.

"This notion that presidents issue a boatload on their way out of office is largely false," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley (Ill.) College who runs "The last-minute surge is a Clinton phenomenon."

Clinton granted 140 pardons and 36 commutations on Jan. 20, 2001, his last day in office. One went to Kelli Anne (Flynn) Perhosky of Bridgeville, who in 1989 was sentenced to two years' probation for mail fraud conspiracy. Repeated attempts to reach her and Hultman were unsuccessful.

People waiting for pardons shouldn't get their hopes up.

"No one has a good chance," Ruckman said. "It's just who has a snowball's chance."

Federal clemency petitions are filed with the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney, which was established in 1981 to assist the president. The office requires that five years must have passed since a petitioner's sentence ended, and it generally does not accept commutation petitions from those who have yet to begin serving sentences.

Since 2001, the office has denied 8,500 clemency petitions and closed another 2,600 without presidential action, government figures show. Bush has granted 199 acts of clemency.

In recent years, some people have bypassed the pardon attorney and appealed directly to the White House, which has no publicly stated standards for determining which petitions to grant.

Bush might consider offering pardons for potential war-crimes investigations, such as for those who created and implemented interrogation policies. Another possible pardon recipient is I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

In June 2007, a federal judge sentenced Libby to 30 months in prison and imposed a $250,000 fine after a jury convicted him of obstruction, perjury and making false statements in the investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. Bush commuted Libby's sentence a month after he went to prison, although the fine remained intact.

Washington approved 16 acts of clemency affecting 26 people, including John Loughery, John Mitchell and Philip Vigol, whom he pardoned in 1795. The men were convicted of treason and sentenced to hang for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion, a late-18th century uprising by people around Pittsburgh who opposed a federal excise tax on liquor. Thousands of farmers took up arms, sparking the largest revolt against the federal government until the Civil War.

On March 3, 1797, toward the end of his presidency, Washington pardoned 11 other Western Pennsylvanians who participated in the rebellion.

Washington granted the fewest acts of clemency except for William H. Harrison and James Garfield, who issued none. They served as president for one and six months, respectively. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in office for more than 12 years, granted 3,687 pardons and commutations, the most.

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