This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have
been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities, a ProPublica
examination has found.
Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president's ultimate act of mercy, according to an analysis of previously unreleased records and related data.
Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department
said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which
persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are
"I'm just astounded by those numbers," said Roger Adams, who served as
head of the Justice Department's pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He
said he could think of nothing in the office's practices that would have
skewed the recommendations. "I can recall several African Americans
The review of applications for pardons is conducted almost entirely in
secret, with the government releasing scant information about those it
ProPublica's review examined what happened after President George W.
Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely
on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the
The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards,
including judgments about the "attitude" and the marital and financial
stability of applicants. No two pardon cases match up perfectly, but
records reveal repeated instances in which white applicants won pardons
with transgressions on their records similar to those of blacks and
other minorities who were
Senior aides in the Bush White House say the president had hoped to take
politics out of the process and avoid a repetition of the Marc Rich scandal,
in which the fugitive financier won an eleventh-hour pardon tainted by
his ex-wife's donations to Democratic causes and the Clinton
Justice Department officials said in a statement Friday that the pardon
process takes into account many factors that cannot be statistically
measured, such as an applicant's candor and level of remorse.
"Nonetheless, we take the concerns seriously," the statement said. "We
will continue to evaluate the statistical analysis and, of course, are
always working to improve the clemency process and ensure that every
applicant gets a fair, merit-based evaluation."
Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every
case, the aides said. The results, spread among hundreds of cases over
eight years, heavily favored whites. President Obama — who has pardoned
22 people, two of them minorities — has continued the practice of
relying on the pardons office.
"President Obama takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very
seriously," said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. "Race has no
place in the evaluation of clemency evaluations, and the White House
does not consider or even receive information on the race of
The president's power to pardon is enshrined in the Constitution. It is
an act of forgiveness for a federal crime. It does not wipe away the
conviction, but it does restore a person's full rights to vote, possess
firearms and serve on federal juries. It allows individuals to obtain
licensing and business permits and removes barriers to certain career
opportunities and adoptions.
To assess how the pardons office selects candidates for pardons,
ProPublica interviewed key officials, obtained access to thousands of
pages of internal documents and used statistical tests to measure the
effects of race and other factors on the outcome.
From 2001 to 2008, Bush issued decisions in 1,918 pardon cases sent to
him by the Justice Department, most involving nonviolent drug or
financial crimes. He pardoned 189 people - all but 13 of whom were
white. Seven pardons went to blacks, four to Hispanics, one to an Asian
and one to a Native American.
Fred Fielding, who served as Bush's White House counsel, said the racial
disparity "is very troubling to me and will be to [Bush], because we
had no idea of the race of any applicant."
"The names were colorblind to us," Fielding said, "and we assumed they would be at all levels of clemency review."
Beginning in September 2010, the Justice Department was required to make
available the names of people denied pardons. Bush's pardon decisions
were selected to examine the impact of the pardons office's
recommendations over a president's full term and to test how well the
office met the president's goal of assuring fairness in the process.
The department does not reveal race or any additional information that
would identify an applicant, citing privacy grounds. To analyze pardons,
ProPublica selected a random sample of nearly 500 cases decided by Bush
and spent a year tracking down the age, gender, race, crime, sentence
and marital status of applicants from public records and interviews.
In multiple cases, white and black pardon applicants who committed
similar offenses and had comparable post-conviction records experienced
An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for
underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman
from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than
$25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender — a
Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1
grams of crack - was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who
did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was
All of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the
pardon attorney's recommendation - 34 of them - were white.
Turning over pardons to career officials has not removed money and
politics from the process, the analysis found. Justice Department
documents show that nearly 200 members of Congress from both parties
contacted the pardons office regarding pending cases. In multiple
instances, felons and their families made campaign contributions to the
lawmakers supporting their pleas. Applicants with congressional support
were three times as likely to be pardoned, the statistical analysis
In reviewing applicants, pardon lawyers rely on their discretion in ways
that favor people who are married and who have never divorced, declared
bankruptcy or taken on large amounts of debt. The intent, officials
say, is to reward people who demonstrated "stability" after their
convictions. But the effect has been to exclude large segments of
The ProPublica data show that applicants whose offense was older than 20
years had the best odds of a pardon. Married people, those who received
probation rather than prison time, and financially stable applicants
also fared better. When the effects of those factors and others were
controlled using statistical methods, however, race emerged as one of
the strongest predictors of a pardon.
The most striking disparity involved African Americans, who make up 38
percent of the federal prison population and have historically suffered
from greater financial and marital instability. Of the nearly 500 cases
in ProPublica's sample, 12 percent of whites were pardoned, as were 10
percent of Hispanics.
None of the 62 African Americans in the random sample received a pardon.
To assess the chances of black applicants, ProPublica used the sample
to extrapolate the total number of black applicants and compare it with
the seven blacks whom Bush pardoned. Allowing for a margin of error,
this yielded a pardon rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent.
the head of the pardons office under Bush, said applicants were not
penalized based on race. In fact, Adams went out of his way, he said, to
help black applicants.
"People in general more and more feel that it is appropriate to give
extra consideration to a member of a minority group," he said.
Applicants are not asked about their race. But race is listed in many of
the law enforcement documents collected for the application, including
pre-sentence reports, rap sheets and Federal Bureau of Prisons records.
Under Justice Department regulations, Adams said, lawyers in the pardons
office conduct a rigorous review of an applicant's offense. They then
examine character, reputation and post-conviction behavior - tests of
what Adams termed "attitude."
"Is the person seeking a pardon for forgiveness or vindication?" Adams
said. "Are they going to wave a flag around that says a pardon proves
they didn't do as bad as the government said?" If so, he said, "it is
counted against them."
Samuel Morison, a lawyer who worked in the pardons office for 13 years,
said there is an institutional interest in preserving the convictions
secured by the government's prosecutors.
"The pardon office is not a neutral arbiter, because the Justice
Department was a party to every criminal case it examines," Morison
The yardsticks used by the office under Adams continue to be used under
his successor, Ronald L. Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and
Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general who has represented
high-profile pardon applicants, said he has long been frustrated by the
slow pace of the process and its lack of transparency. The Justice
Department says the office has increased its efficiency, deciding cases
in a little more than two years, an improvement since 2005, when the
wait was twice that.
When a pardon is denied, the notice comes with no explanation.
"It just comes out of the blue," Olson said. "You can't explain to your
client why, especially when you think you've made a strong case."
Parallel cases, disparate outcomes
Denise Armstead's beauty salon sits on a busy corner in Little Rock's
west side. A big sign out front beckons customers from the largely
African American neighborhood.
Armstead, who is black, became a hair stylist straight out of high
school and dreamed of owning her own salon. Like many small-business
owners, she kept her own receipts. An accountant filled out her tax
In 1994, the federal government accused Armstead, then 35, of failing to
report $32,000 in income over four years. She hired a lawyer and fought
the charges, ultimately getting them reduced to a single count of
under-reporting her income in 1989.
Her lawyer, a former Internal Revenue Service employee, advised that a
trial would cost more than the $3,000 fine, she said. In a plea bargain,
she received three years' probation and paid the fine in installments.
In the same city, Margaret Leggett and her husband, who are white, were
also accused of violating federal tax laws. In 1981, Leggett rented an
apartment under a fictitious name and her husband created a fake bank
account and fake Social Security numbers. They then filed for multiple
tax refunds totaling more than $25,000.
Leggett pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government by making
false claims. In her mid-30s, she was sentenced to three years in
prison but was released after three months. Her husband paid a $5,000
fine and served 15 months in prison.
Years later, Armstead and Leggett each applied for a pardon. On paper,
both were strong candidates. They had accepted responsibility in court
and completed their sentences with good behavior.
Neither had any other criminal convictions. Both were active in their
churches. Leggett and Armstead had both filled out lengthy applications
in which they listed their crime, punishment and professional and
In April 2006, Bush followed the pardon attorney's recommendation and
approved a pardon for Leggett. A year later, Bush again followed the
attorney's advice and turned down Armstead.
Armstead had a personal reason for seeking a pardon: She had hoped to
become a nurse. She was inspired to change professions while caring for
her mother, who was dying of renal failure.
"I would take off work and take her to the clinic," she said.
An Arkansas nursing license requires a criminal-background check. Her
felony record stood as a potential obstacle, her attorney told her. He
recommended she apply for a presidential pardon. She was not aware that
her 2002 request had been denied until a reporter informed her this
According to Justice Department memos, Armstead was denied "for a
four-year course of criminal conduct for which [she] failed to take
responsibility." The four years referred to the four charges of tax
evasion in the original indictment against her.
Adams said that he did not remember Armstead's case but that, in
general, applicants need to show remorse for any conduct they were
indicted for, not just the charges to which they pleaded guilty.
"What the person did, as opposed to what they pled guilty to, is a
relevant factor in judging how honest they are," Adams said. "This
spills over to attitude."
A former White House lawyer said he had no idea the pardons office was
considering indictments rather than only convictions in their
"I definitely didn't know that," said Kenneth Lee, the associate White
House counsel during Bush's second term who dealt with the pardons
office. "If we knew these kinds of things, our decision making may have
Leggett lives with her husband in Hot Springs, Ark., where they own a
boat repair shop. She said she did not remember why she sought the
Kenneth Stoll prosecuted both Armstead and Leggett when he was an
assistant U.S. attorney in Little Rock. Stoll said he does not recall
either woman. The pardons office sought a recommendation for Leggett
from the prosecutors' office after Stoll had retired. He was not asked
his opinion. But, he says now, Leggett's crime was a more significant
Leggett and her husband have been married for more than 30 years. They have owned or operated nearly a dozen businesses.
Though she was divorced when she applied for a pardon, Armstead would
still appear to meet the "stability" test. She said her life has
remained on an even keel — she continues to operate her beauty salon
and does not have excessive debts.
For applicants who appear to be solid candidates, the pardons office
considers the views of prosecutors and judges. Armstead's case never
reached that stage.
But the pardons office solicited advice on Leggett - and received lukewarm answers.
The U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock took no position, and the
judge did not object to a pardon. But Leggett's bid was opposed by a
high-ranking Justice Department official. Eileen J. O'Connor, the
assistant attorney general in charge of all criminal tax matters,
advised the pardons office that Leggett's application should be denied
because she did not "fully admit unconditional responsibility" for her
O'Connor noted that Leggett omitted from her pardon application that she
had rented the apartment under a false name and made a utility deposit
as part of the ruse to file false returns.
"It appears that she has attempted in her quest for a pardon to minimize
her involvement in the crime and shift the blame to her husband,"
This could have posed a serious problem for Leggett. The Justice
Department explicitly states that applicants need to take personal
responsibility for their crimes and show remorse.
But in this instance, pardons office lawyers appear to have accepted
what Leggett's husband said at trial, which is that he had talked his
wife into participating in the scheme.
Another factor in pardon applications is whether the person has a practical need for presidential mercy.
"If a person doesn't have a reason, it doesn't hurt," Adams said of the
policy. "And if a person wants forgiveness, that is fine, but if the
need is for licensing or business ownership or to obtain a franchise,
that will help, and the office will try to push it farther."
But that did not help Armstead.
An obscure office
The declared intent of the Founding Fathers was to have presidential
pardon power right miscarriages of justice. Former Supreme Court chief
justice William H. Rehnquist called pardons a "fail safe" against the
"unalterable fact that our judicial system, like the human beings who
administer it, is fallible."
Today, the pardons office places little emphasis on trying to help those
who might be innocent. Applicants who claim they were victims of unjust
treatment "bear a formidable burden of persuasion," the pardons office
says on its website. In practice, officials say, that burden is
Article II of the Constitution gives presidents the authority to "grant
reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States." It was
among the few royal powers carried over from the British monarchy. In
1788, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 74 that the president
would be the best "dispenser of the mercy of government." Groups of men,
he argued, were too easily swayed by popular passions.
In 1893, Grover Cleveland issued an executive order delegating the
paperwork on pardons to a single office inside the Justice Department.
Today, the office employs a lead pardon attorney, a deputy and four
additional lawyers. They review hundreds of pardon applications a year.
Leggett and Armstead's applications reached Washington just as this office gained more clout than it ever had.
The reason could be traced to one of
President Bill Clinton's last acts, his pardon of Marc Rich. The
decision became a scandal after reports that Rich's former wife, a big
Democratic donor, gave $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library. In
congressional hearings that followed, it emerged that Eric H. Holder
Jr., then deputy attorney general, had encouraged Rich's attorneys to
apply directly to the White House.
In response, the incoming Bush administration vowed that the pardons office would vet every applicant.
The office lists on its website a five-point test for applicants. The
first test is straightforward: Candidates must wait five years after
completion of their sentences before applying.
Next, lawyers consider the "conduct, character and reputation" of
applicants after they served their sentences. The third point is the
need of the applicant, and the fourth is the opinion of prosecutors and
The final point is acceptance of responsibility for their crimes, remorse and atonement.
Pardons office lawyers assess whether applicants lead what Adams called
"stable" lives. An applicant who had been divorced would give pause.
Owing excessive debt to credit card companies or banks - as many
Americans do - could also be a red flag.
"A person in debt is always in some risk of doing something
inappropriate to get out of it," Adams said. "It's only natural for the
office to be a little cautious."
A review of pardons cases found that some applicants were rejected
because they had filed for bankruptcy in the years after their
conviction or were unemployed, a situation that is not unusual for
convicted criminals, who often have trouble rebuilding their lives.
But Bush pardoned white applicants who had filed for bankruptcies, had
driven drunk or had illegally possessed firearms. Two successful
applicants lied to the FBI during the background checks that are part of
the application process.
A choke point
By Bush's second term, it was clear that putting decisions in the hands
of the pardons office had dramatically slowed the flow of pardons.
Elected as a "compassionate conservative," Bush was on pace to become
the least-forgiving two-term president
In 2006, White House Counsel Harriet Miers became so frustrated with the
paucity of recommended candidates that she met with Adams and his boss,
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
Adams said he told Miers that if she wanted more recommendations, he
would need more staff. Adams said he did not get any extra help. Nothing
"It became very frustrating, because we repeatedly asked the office for
more favorable recommendations for the president to consider," said
Fielding, who was Bush's last White House counsel. "But all we got were
more recommendations for denials."
In 2007, the pardons office was hit with its own scandal.
had opposed a pardon for Chibueze Okorie, a Nigerian-born minister
beloved by his Brooklyn church. Okorie faced deportation because of a
1992 conviction for possessing heroin with intent to distribute.
"This might sound racist," Adams told colleagues, according to a report from the Justice Department's inspector general, but Okorie is "about as honest as you could expect for a Nigerian. Unfortunately, that's not very honest."
When asked by investigators in the inspector general's office to explain
his remarks, Adams said that Nigerian immigrants "commit more crimes
than other people" and that an applicant's nationality is "an important
consideration" in pardons, according to the report. "It's one the White
House wants to know about," Adams told investigators.
The inspector general's office disagreed.
"We believe that Adams' comments - and his use of nationality in the
decision-making process - were inappropriate," the report concluded. "We
were extremely troubled by Adams' belief that an applicant's 'ethnic
background' was something that should be an 'important consideration' in
a pardon decision."
Adams said his comments about Okorie were focused on his ethnicity, not
his race, and were taken out of context by the inspector general's
Adams left his post and retired. He was replaced in April 2008 by
Rodgers, a former military judge who had prosecuted major drug crimes
for the Justice Department's criminal division. Shortly after taking
over, Rodgers hired the office's first African American staff attorney.
As the Bush presidency drew to a close, the inability to grant more
pardons continued to vex White House officials. Throughout 2008, the
White House sent e-mails to the pardons office asking for more
candidates. White House lawyers repeatedly asked the office to
reconsider cases in which it had recommended denials.
On Sept. 16, 2008, Lee, the associate White House counsel, asked about
two pending applicants whose attorneys had contacted the White House.
"As noted previously, we are hoping to get as many clemency
recommendations as possible over the next few months," Lee wrote. "To
the extent that these two petitions may be 'easy' cases (and I defer to
you on that question), it would be helpful if these and other 'easy'
cases are given priority."
Rodgers forwarded the e-mail to a staff attorney with a warning to
ignore anything in Lee's note that "could be construed as armchair
With no more than 30 recommendations from the pardons office by the
fall, the White House pushed to reverse two denials, Lee and others said
in interviews. Then it did something Bush had vowed to avoid, taking up
a pardon application from a felon whose case had not been reviewed by
the pardon attorney.
Isaac Toussie, a New York developer and Republican political donor,
pleaded guilty in 2001 and 2002 to mail fraud and a real estate scheme
in which false documents had been submitted to allow low-income buyers
to obtain insured mortgages from the Department of Housing and Urban
Development. Toussie served five months in prison, another five months
of home detention and three years of supervised release. He also paid a
Toussie had not waited the requisite five years, but one of his
attorneys, Bradford Berenson, had been an associate White House counsel
during Bush's first term. Berenson took Toussie's case directly to the
White House - and it worked. On Dec. 23, 2008, Toussie's name was on the
final list of pardons granted by Bush.
That action sparked fury among hundreds of New Yorkers who were involved
at the time in a civil litigation suit against the Toussie family over a
second real estate project.
After eight years of caution on pardons, Bush had stumbled. On Dec. 24,
2008 - four weeks before Obama's inauguration — Bush became the first
president to announce withdrawal of a pardon.
Bush left office having denied more than twice as many applicants as
Clinton. Richard Nixon pardoned more people in a single year than Bush
pardoned during two full terms.
In the final hour of his presidency,
Bush confided to Obama his deep frustrations with the pardon process. In
the limousine ride the two men shared up Pennsylvania Avenue on
Inauguration Day, Bush offered his successor this piece of advice:
"Announce a pardon policy early on and stick to it."
Bush wrote in his memoir that he had been besieged by last-minute pardon
requests from politically connected people who did not go through the
"At first I was frustrated," he wrote. "Then I was disgusted. I came to
see massive injustice in the system. If you had connections to the
President, you could insert your case into the last-minute frenzy.
Otherwise, you had to wait for the Justice Department to conduct a
review and make a recommendation."
Bush resolved to rebuff the personal requests.
The incoming administration needed little prodding on this issue.
Obama's top legal advisers already were convinced that the pardon system
put the poor at a disadvantage. Gregory Craig, who would become Obama's
White House counsel, said he began raising the possibility of reform
during the transition.
Craig said pardons were "clearly much more available to people with economic means than those without."
Working with then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, Craig developed a
plan to take the vetting of pardon applicants away from career
"I couldn't completely understand the standards being applied by the
pardons office," Ogden said in an interview. "They seemed very
subjective in some cases, and I thought the standards should come from
the president, not from the pardons office."
Craig said he believes pardon applications should be sifted by an
independent commission of former judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys
and representatives of faith-based groups. The commission would make
recommendations directly to the president.
Officials envisioned a process in which the president would announce
decisions quarterly instead of the traditional grants at Thanksgiving
and Christmas. A team of lawyers also suggested that the president
explain his decisions, to build confidence in the process and encourage
people to apply.
Officials were struck by comparisons between the federal system and
those of the states. Depending on the state, pardons can be granted by
governors, legislatures or state pardon boards. During the period in
which Bush pardoned 189 people, Pennsylvania pardoned more than 1,000.
Several states have adopted the practice of explaining their decisions.
Virginia issues public notices praising specific aspects of an
Obama officials believed changes in the pardon system could be made by
executive order. But two years later, pardon reform efforts were dead.
The effort faded away as its key proponents, Ogden and Craig, left the
"We just never got there before I left," said Ogden, who resigned in 2010.
The pardons office continues to function much as it did under Bush, with
Obama pardoning only applicants recommended by the office. Obama has
denied 1,019 pardon requests, more than Clinton denied during his two