Name that pardon

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For indignant defendants proclaiming their innocence, felons cooling their heels in prison, or even those on the street who just want to clear their names, this is a very special weekend. It is President Bush’s last in office, and by tradition, his last opportunity to wield his wide-ranging authority to grant pardons.

President Clinton elevated the last-minute pardon to high art on his last Saturday in office, when he issued 176 pardons and clemency orders, most notably clearing on-the-lam-in-Switzerland commodities trader Marc Rich.

The Justice Department reports that President Bush has received 2,411 requests for pardon — 347 of them in just the last three months. That’s more than any president since Lyndon Johnson. It’s no wonder the field is large. Since Bush happened to preside over many of the largest fraud-related business collapses in U.S. history, he has the unique opportunity to mull forgiveness for several high-ranking corporate felons. Among them: Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers, Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow, Tyco’s Dennis Kozslowski, and Imclone’s Sam Waksal (friend to domestic guru and fellow felon, Martha Stewart).

Former Qwest Chief Executive Joseph Nacchio is also jailed, but likely earned himself no friends in the Bush administration by claiming he was prosecuted in retaliation for his failure to spy on his telecom customers for the National Security Agency. Former Healthsouth founder Richard Scrushy showcased his religious roots and drew much support during his corporate fraud trial — including from the jury that acquitted him — but he was later convicted of bribing Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, a Democrat.

Among political pardon candidates, the smart money is on former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, whose colleagues have been vocal in their pleas that his conviction on corruption charges be wiped out. The other big name, of course, is I. Scooter Libby, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, convicted of lying to federal authorities investigating the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Bush commuted his sentence, but has not, as yet, granted a full pardon, which many ex-felons seek to restore civil liberties such as voting rights.

But perhaps alleged and convicted crooks should not hold their breath. President Bush ranks near the bottom of modern presidents in doling out pardons, granting 171 in his eight years in office. That number could change significantly, of course, if the president issues a flurry of pardons this weekend. But so far, the only president since Truman who was more parsimonious was Bush’s father, who granted 74 in four years. Those included some biggies, however, such as former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others who were being investigated in the Iran-Contra scandal.

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