Trump's pardon largesse a boon for well-connected fraudsters

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FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, speaks with reporters in New York after pleading not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall. Trump is expected to pardon Bannon, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, as part of a flurry of last-minute clemency action that appears to be still in flux in the last hours of his presidency. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

WASHINGTON – A former congressman who pocketed millions of dollars in bribes from defense contractors. A Republican fundraiser who was paid handsome sums to illicitly lobby a presidential administration. An influential voice in conservative circles accused of duping donors who supported a border wall.

Donald Trump’s final batch of more than 140 pardons and sentence commutations, issued in his last hours as president, benefited an ignominious list of defendants whose swindles, frauds and public corruption made them unlikely candidates for executive clemency. The recipients included people who not only abused their own positions of power but who also leveraged well-placed connections to pursue pardons from a president willing to use his authority to bless patrons and friends.

“It wasn’t about draining the swamp. It was the swamp,” said Sanjay Bhandari, a former Justice Department prosecutor who in 2005 secured a guilty plea from Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the former California congressman who was pardoned early Wednesday despite having accepted at least $2.4 million in home payments, yacht club fees and other bribes from defense contractors.

The White House cited Cunningham's post-prison volunteer work, military career and the support he received from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally. But that explanation was lacking to Bhandari, who said it appeared that Cunningham and others in a “rogue’s gallery” of recipients benefited more from their proximity to power than from the actual merit of their cases.

“On a personal level, it’s hard to hold any personal animosity or venom toward the individual,” Bhandari said of Cunningham. But, “as a citizen looking at the process and looking at who has been chosen for a pardon and on what grounds — that’s what’s really disturbing.”

To be sure, presidents have broad discretion in their use of the pardon power and many have exercised it, albeit sparingly, on defendants to whom they have personal or political ties. George H.W. Bush pardoned Reagan administration officials implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a substantial donor.

It's also the case that many of the names on Trump’s last list were conventional and non-controversial selections, including relatively anonymous drug offenders seen as having rehabilitated themselves during long stays in prison.

Even so, “Trump has had a much higher percentage of his pardons be the sort of well-connected, personally connected-to-him, or to people close to him kind of folks,” said Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt, an expert on pardons.