The United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, gives a sitting president unlimited power to pardon or commute sentences of those convicted of federal crimes. While both are forms of clemency, a presidential pardon is full legal forgiveness for a federal crime. A commutation reduces the sentence for, but does not absolve the conviction of, a federal crime. (A sitting president cannot pardon individuals or commutate sentences of people convicted of state crimes; these powers are granted to the respective state’s governor or pardon board).
On February 18th, 2020, President Trump pardoned seven people. Three notable figures included in this group are Michael Milken, Bernard Kerik and Edward DeBartolo Jr. Trump commuted the sentences of four others, the most controversial of whom is Rod Blagojevich (D), the former governor of Illinois and primary focus of this article.
Financier widely recognized as the individual responsible for promoting the market for high yield bonds or “junk bonds” to finance leveraged buyouts in the 1980s. During the latter half of that decade, Milken was paid over $1 billion dollars at investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, a record for the era. In 1989, Milken was charged with racketeering and securities fraud related to an insider trading investigation. He took a plea bargain and acceded guilt to certain securities violations, though not insider trading. Under the terms of the deal, Milken was sentenced to a decade behind bars (later reduced to 24 months), fined $600 million dollars & banned from the securities industry for life. Since his release from jail, Milken has given large sums of money to various charitable causes related to medicine and medical research. According to Forbes, he is currently the worlds 606th richest person with a net worth of $3.7 billion dollars.
A law enforcement professional who joined the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in 1986, Kerik was the commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections from 1998-2000 and served as New York City’s Police Commissioner from August 2000 until December 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks and subsequent invasion of Iraq, President George Bush choose Kerik for several mandates in Iraq. He is widely credited with doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances. The United Nations (UN) noted that Kerik's team made "positive interventions in a number of areas.” In 2003, Bush nominated Kerik to lead the newly created Department of Homeland Security; however, Kerik later withdrew from the process and admitted that he hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Kerik was later investigated by state and federal authorities for unrelated violations. As a result of those probes, in 2006 he plead guilty to two misdemeanors. In 2009 he plead guilty to more serious charges, including tax fraud. He was sentenced to 4 years in a federal penitentiary.
Edward DeBartolo Jr.
Not only a successful real estate investor who sold his company to Simon Property Group, DeBartolo also owned the San Francisco 49’ers for 23 years. He was extremely well liked by both players, whom he treated like family, and most fans. During his tenure, the 49’ers won five Super Bowls (1982, ’85, ’89, ’90, ’95) and amassed the most wins within a 10 year time frame in NFL history. In 1992, DeBartolo was accused of sexually assaulting a cocktail waitress in Menlo Park, CA. He was never charged with a crime; the case was settled out of court. DeBartolo’s most serious legal trouble stemmed from an extortion case involving the former governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards. Edwards wanted $400,000 from DeBartolo in exchange for a river boat casino license. DeBartolo failed to report this to authorities. He was charged and later plead guilty to failing to report a felony. In exchange for testimony against Edwards, DeBartolo was given two years of probation and fined $1 million dollars. He ultimately pulled out of the casino project. The National Football League also imposed its own financial penalty and barred DeBartolo from controlling the 49’ers for one year. In 2000, he ceded control of the team to his sister, Denise.
At The Quintessential Centrist, we are indifferent to the pardons granted to the individuals listed above. While it would be reasonable to assume that this trio was not the most deserving of them, they certainly do not seem like particularly evil people. Milken served time, paid a fine, was banned from the securities business for life and has since made amends via generous charitable donations. Ex Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards actions were reprehensible. DeBartolo Jr’s response to them were a mistake: he was wrong not to report Edwards to law enforcement. Meanwhile Kerik’s resume is far from spotless but he was an effective public servant. He led the NYPD’s cohesive response to the 9/11 attacks and successfully implemented numerous strategic initiatives in Iraq. Indeed, of the laundry list of shameful things Mr. Trump has accomplished while in office, pardoning these individuals is far from a great injustice. However, commuting the sentence of the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, is a disgrace.
Rod Blagojevich was the 40th governor of Illinois. He served from 2003 until he was removed from office in 2009. Blagojevich’s most infamous act: attempting to sell the senate seat vacated by Barrack Obama after he was elected president. In 2008, Blagojevich noted: "I mean, I've got this thing and it's f** golden. And I'm just not giving it up for f** nothing…I'm stuck, the whole world is passing me by and I'm stuck in the job of governor…I've got to figure out a way to take some financial stress off my family…”(The governor of Illinois earns $177,412 per year, is offered the use of two official residences, and receives other generous state benefits). While this shameful violation of the public trust represents Blagojevich’s most noteworthy example of moral bankruptcy, it was not his most depraved.
While serving as Governor, Rob Blagojevich tried to shake down Children’s Memorial hospital in exchange for a $50,000 campaign contribution from its then CEO, Patrick Magoon. Specifically, Blagojevich was angling to secure the donation in exchange for channeling $8 million dollars in state funding to pediatricians across Illinois.
The hospital released this statement at the time of the charges: "Children's Memorial is very disappointed that the $8 million in funding that the pediatric providers of Illinois believed would enable them to care for Illinois' neediest children has been tied to an alleged pay-for-play scheme."
Rod Blagojevich was impeached, removed from office by the Illinois state senate in a unanimous 59-0 vote, and ultimately found guilty on multiple counts of fraud. At the time of his commutation, he had served ~8 years of a 14-year prison sentence at the minimum security Federal Correctional Institution in Colorado. He should have been committed there until at least 2024 when he would have been eligible for early release on good behavior. It is disgraceful that President Trump commuted the sentence of former governor Blagojevich, a morally corrupt human being who rendered public trust in Illinois elected officials to an all-time low; an impressive feat given the long lineage of ethically challenged men and women who have served in government in the Land of Lincoln. Unfathomably, Blagojevich shows no remorse for his crimes. He consistently argues that he did nothing improper, and that his actions were examples of politics as usual. He is correct in the latter reference, at least as it relates to Illinois.
Blagojevich was the 4th Illinois governor to serve time in federal prison (Otto Kerner Jr., Dan Walker, George Ryan). Indeed, endemic corruption, venality, cronyism and inside dealing have been a mainstay of politics in the state throughout history. This enabled politicians to enrich themselves at the expense of their constituents. As a result, the citizens of Illinois are facing a tremendous current liability.
There are gaping holes in the Illinois state budget, the pension is chronically underfunded and the states’ municipal debt carries the lowest rating of any in the union. This increases Illinois cost of funds and transacting business in the state has become more expensive as a result. On a local level, Chicago, the most populous city in the state, is saddled with more pension debt than any major U.S. city. All this, despite the state having second highest property taxes in America, in addition to high sales and state income tax rates. In fact, Chicago has the highest combined state and local sales tax in the country.
To help plug (another) budget shortfall, Chicago recently enacted a 9% cloud tax – the first of its kind in America - “for the privilege of streaming internet-based entertainment, including video, music and gaming services.”
To date, President Trump has pardoned or commuted the sentences of 35 people. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, the editorial board lambasted Trump for arguing that his “mercy reflected his deep concern with excessive criminal sentences.” They argued that “The American Justice System is rife with examples of inequity, but being too tough on white-collar criminals is not one of them.” We agree. And we agree that Trump has sometimes been inequitable, often untruthful, and at times brazen to the point of usurping the constitution to enforce his will. However, there is some merit to his statement about his concern regarding unfair and excessive criminal sentences.
President Trump signed The First Step Act, a bi-partisan prison reform bill. TQC opined on this in February of 2019, in an article titled Where We Think Trump Is Right. Among other things, this piece of legislation rectified some of the injustices that were the product of federal drug laws enacted in the late 1980’s. Those laws were unjust because of blatant inconsistencies between longer penalties recommended for crack-cocaine offenses, a drug often associated with inner-city minorities than for powdered-cocaine wrongdoings, a drug of choice amongst Caucasians. Additionally, this sensible bill provides a pathway for certain non-violent drug offenders to exit prison and become productive members of society.
Let us be clear, one just action certainly does not absolve Donald Trump for his unacceptable behavior. And The New York Times editorial board was correct in calling him out for commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich and pardoning a group of privileged white-collar criminals. However, perhaps the Times should have also recognized Trump for singing the First Step Act - which has helped more minorities in the criminal justice system than any single prior piece of legislation in decades - into law.