Williams’ Allies Seeking Posthumous Pardon

Posted April 7, 2004 at 6:48pm

Hoping to erase the stain of his bribery conviction from the controversial 1980 FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM, former Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) applied in 2000 for a presidential pardon.

Williams died in November 2001 before his pardon was considered by President Bush, but efforts to seek clemency for the late Senator live on.

Friends and family of the four-term Senator, who resigned in 1982, are hoping to take their appeal for a pardon directly to Bush. If successful, Williams’ pardon would be only the second-ever posthumous pardon granted by the chief executive.

The crusade is being led in part by Charles Donovan, a Pennsylvania resident who served in the Navy with Williams during World War II. But the effort also has the support of several Washington insiders, including former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry and prominent attorney Stan Brand.

McCurry, who got his start in politics serving as spokesman for Williams, said in an interview that it’s time for the late Senator to get his due.

“He had an extraordinary legislative career that was very underappreciated. He built a career around helping workers’ rights,” said McCurry, citing everything from the creation of OSHA and ERISA to a prescient push for urban mass-transit funding.

As for ABSCAM, McCurry noted that Williams insisted to his dying days that he was innocent. He added that Williams had the unfortunate luck of being the last lawmaker prosecuted in the case, so he got lumped in with Members who had actually got caught on tape taking money.

“The country had seen all these Members convicted,” said McCurry. “There are many of us who believe he was unfairly convicted. I don’t think he had a criminal bone in his body.”

At the very least, McCurry said, Bush should recognize the fact that Williams never plea bargained and merely went off to prison and did his time. “There’s no question he paid his debt to society,” he said.

But officials at the Justice Department, which oversees the Office of the Pardon Attorney, insist that the appeal flies in the face of long-standing precedent and has little chance of succeeding.

According to John Nowacki, a spokesman for the Justice Department, the application was closed “in accordance with the standard procedure when a pardon applicant dies. The Department of Justice typically has not processed applications for posthumous pardons.”

But those acting on behalf of Williams think that since the late Senator petitioned for the pardon while he was alive, and because the Office of the Pardon Attorney was informed of Williams’ tender health condition when he applied, the pardon should still be considered.

“There’s nothing to prevent the department from [granting a posthumous pardon] but as a matter of discretion they’ve determined not to,” said Stanley Brand, a D.C. attorney who knew Williams for 25 years and worked with him on his original pardon application.

Brand and other allies of Williams wish that the clemency request had been acted upon by then-President Bill Clinton, who received the original application in 2000, just before he issued a slew of controversial pardons — including one to Marc Rich — on his way out of office.

“Given Senator Williams’ stature and his relationships in the Senate we had a significant number of Senators try to dislodge [the pardon] from the pardon attorney’s office … I don’t know why this didn’t get the kind of attention others did,” said Brand.

Since Clinton did not act upon the Williams request, it was passed on to Bush when he took office.

“We will continue to press our case regardless of the department’s stance on posthumous pardons,” said Brand. “I believe there should be room for extraordinary circumstances and I think Senator Williams is one of those cases, especially considering he started this process when he was living.”

But with Williams’ chances of getting a pardon have decreased dramatically with his death.

“It’s always been the dogma of the pardon attorney’s office that the president doesn’t do posthumous pardons,” said Margaret Love, who served as pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997. “I don’t think there’s any legal reason he doesn’t, but the pardon attorney’s office is not going to accept an application and I don’t think that’s going to change.”

The only posthumous presidential pardon ever granted occurred in February 1999 when Clinton pardoned Army Lt. Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point who was discharged from the Army in 1881 for what the military later determined to be an unjust and racially motivated conviction.

Nowacki said that case was unique. “His supporters argued that his conviction represented a miscarriage of justice in that it flowed from racial segregation and discrimination that prevailed in much of the United States,” he noted. “The only situation in which a posthumous pardon was granted was the occasion where a particular conviction or punishment was the product of policies, customs and mores that are no longer part of our country.”

“One of the big moving forces you want to demonstrate is what a wonderful life you’ve lived and the contributions you’ve made since” your conviction, said Darryl Jackson, a partner at Arnold & Porter who worked on the Flipper case.

In the Flipper case, the attorney argued, “granting the pardon would promote the public welfare despite the fact that he was deceased.”

Donovan said he hopes the pardon attorney and the president will take into consideration the social work Williams did in the final years of his life.

Donovan pointed out that in 1998 then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) named Williams, a recovering alcoholic, the New Jersey Volunteer of the Year. The award stemmed from his work helping people afflicted with drug and alcohol addiction at Integrity Inc., a Newark rehabilitation center.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has also gone to bat for Williams, with a floor speech in December expressing disappointment that the Senate did not formally recognize his death.

“I hope that his very real accomplishments aren’t lost and that they will be recognized,” Holt said in an interview. “I thought it was unfortunate that the Senate had not paid the customary tribute to a departed Senator.”

But Holt stopped short of supporting a pardon. “I would say I don’t know enough about the circumstances of his conviction to” call for a pardon, he said.

Holt first met Williams when the future Congressman served as a Senate page in 1963. “He was the kind of person that paid attention to people that Senators didn’t always pay attention to,” Holt noted.

McCurry, who like Williams is a graduate of Princeton University, made a point of getting Clinton to agree to speak at the institution’s 200th anniversary in 1996. But a potential problem developed when university officials quietly informed McCurry that Williams would be attending a big reception in connection with Clinton’s speech and this might put the president in a difficult position on the receiving line.

The press secretary decided to privately approach Clinton about the matter and was pleasantly surprised to hear the president insist that he would be honored to snap a photo with Williams. “He got a bum rap — he had a great legislative record,” said Clinton, who proceeded to stun McCurry by reciting chapter and verse about the former Senator’s achievements.

At the event, McCurry took Williams and his wife through the receiving line and watched in awe as Clinton blurted: “I don’t think there’s any Senator who did more for working people. You had an amazing career, sir.”

Thinking back eight years later, McCurry said he wished he had used the encounter to help build the case for Clinton to pardon Williams.

“Williams just beamed,” recalled McCurry. “He never got a pardon, but he got that wonderful moment. If I could have traded that moment for a pardon, I would have done it.”