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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Federal Agencies Opposed Leniency for 16 Militants
by David Johnston
August 27, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON -- A wide range of Federal law-enforcement agencies
that were asked to review a clemency petition filed by imprisoned
members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group unanimously opposed
any leniency in the weeks before President Clinton offered to
commute the sentences of 16 members of the militant organization,
officials said Thursday.
The clemency petition was flatly opposed by the Federal Bureau
of Investigation, the Bureau of Prisons, and United States Attorneys
in Illinois and Connecticut, the officials said.
Though their opposition was mentioned in a final report from
the Justice Department to the White House, that report made no
specific recommendation, as such reports often do. Instead, the
report on the 16 members of the militant Puerto Rican independence
group known as the FALN, for Armed Forces of National Liberation,
contained what law-enforcement officials said was a more carefully-worded
analysis that presented the President with multiple options for
each prisoner -- from unconditional release to no leniency whatsoever.
The officials said that presenting the White House with a multiple-choice
format was highly unusual for the highly confidential clemency
reports, and suggested a diversity of views within law-enforcement
agencies that did not exist. The officials, who said they were
troubled by the decision, acknowledged that they had no evidence
that anyone at the Justice Department or the White House had intentionally
sought to distort the decision-making process.
Jim Kennedy, a White House spokesman, said Thursday that he
would not discuss the details of communications between the Justice
Department and the White House, but added that Charles F. C. Ruff,
then the White House counsel, was well-aware of the views of law-enforcement
agencies and had faithfully presented those views to Clinton.
"The President and his counsel fully understood the range
of views on this issue and were not deprived of any advice they
needed," Kennedy said. Federal law-enforcement officials
have not publicly addressed the issue, but have bitterly complained
in private about the President's Aug. 11 decision, which one senior
official said left law-enforcement officials "stupefied"
and "outraged" by the conditional offer of clemency.
Thursday, Ruff acknowledged having had extensive discussions
with lawyers in the Deputy Attorney General's office at the Justice
Department. He would not discuss the conversations in detail,
but said "nothing out of the ordinary" happened.
Most of the 16 members of the group were convicted of crimes
in a series of cases that were brought in the 1970's. The crimes
included possession of unregistered firearms, interstate transportation
of a stolen vehicle, interference with interstate commerce by
violence, and interstate transportation of firearms with intent
to commit a crime. None were specifically linked to crimes that
resulted in deaths or injuries.
Even so, the FALN members received sentences of 50 or more
years in prison, and most have already served more than 19 years.
Under Clinton's offer, 11 would be eligible for immediate release
from prison and 2 would have to serve more time before being eligible
for release. Three others who have already been released from
prison would have fines reduced.
But the President's terms are conditional. The imprisoned members
of the group must agree to the request that their sentences be
commuted, agree to cooperate with parole officials and renounce
violence for any purpose. So far, none of the 16 have accepted
the Presidential offer.
In their recommendations, F.B.I. officials complained about
granting leniency to members of a militant group that had claimed
responsibility for terrorist acts at a time when the United States
was engaged in a worldwide battle against terrorism. Officials
at the Bureau of Prisons, who monitor the FALN members' visits,
telephone calls and letters, concluded that if they were released
from prison, they might resume their criminal behavior even after
Two United States Attorneys who were consulted both recommended
against leniency. They are Scott R. Lassar in Chicago, where 12
of the prisoners were convicted, and Stephen C. Robinson in New
Haven, where four members of the group were convicted of crimes
related to an armored car robbery. Today, officials in both offices
declined to discuss the matter.
Nevertheless, the power to grant commutations rests exclusively
with the President, and the White House has not always accepted
the Justice Department's recommendations. In pardons, commutations
and clemency issues, the department and its agencies play only
an advisory role.
Thousands of people signed a petition and lobbied for the prisoners'
release, among them former President Jimmy Carter and prominent
human rights leaders like Desmond M. Tutu of South Africa, the
Nobel Laureate, and Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Several Democratic lawmakers from New York
also urged Clinton to release the 16 prisoners, including Representatives
Jose E. Serrano, Charles B. Rangel, Nydia M. Velázquez
and Eliot L. Engel. Among their arguments are that the prison
terms were excessive and that the prisoners had already served
Still, it is highly unusual for the President to reject the
unanimous recommendation of law-enforcement agencies like the
F.B.I., particularly in a case related to a group responsible
for bombings that killed six people and maimed dozens of others,
including several New York City police officers.
The clemency offer has been criticized by politicians like
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, who has asked Clinton to
rescind it, and by Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, a Democrat
who rarely criticizes the White House.
Some Republicans have criticized Clinton on the ground that
the clemency offer appeared to be an effort to rally support among
the large population of Hispanic voters in New York as Hillary
Rodham Clinton moves closer to entering the race there for the
Senate. But White House officials have denied that the decision
was an effort to help her, saying the deliberations began before
she considered running.
Jan Susler, the Chicago-based lawyer for the imprisoned Puerto
Ricans, said today that her clients wanted to reach a unified
decision but were dispersed at 11 different Federal prisons.
She said they had carefully considered the offer but "have
a lot of problems with the proposals," partly because of
the conditional nature of the offer, which could restrict their
activities out of prison, including their ability to contact one