(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump announced a set of clemencies and pardons on Tuesday, including for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who was convicted of public corruption and for financier Michael Milken who was convicted of securities fraud.
The commutation of the 14-year prison sentence of Blagojevich brought a surprising end to one of the highest-profile public corruption cases of the 21st century.
Trump’s closest confidants had urged him to pardon Milken, the 1980s “junk bond king” who has sought for decades to reverse his conviction.
Trump also pardoned former New York City police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was sentenced to four years in prison for failure to pay taxes and lying to White House officials. The president earlier in the day pardoned Edward DeBartolo Jr., who owned the San Francisco 49ers football team for 23 years and pleaded guilty in 1998 to failing to report an alleged extortion attempt.
It’s unusual for a president to announce so many controversial clemencies and pardons at once -- especially in an election year. Many of the pardons and clemencies were backed by conservatives. For instance, the White House said Milken’s pardon was supported by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, whose office prosecuted Milken in the 1980s.
Trump has relished the use of his clemency power, which is virtually unchecked by the Constitution. He has issued more than two dozen pardons and commutations since becoming president, many of which were awarded to political allies.
The president sought to draw a connection between Blagojevich’s case and the federal investigation into alleged ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump calls that probe a “witch hunt.”
Some Democrats were quick to criticize Trump’s move on Blagojevich.
“Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time.”
Read More: Trump Pardons Former 49ers Team Owner Over 1998 Felony Charge
Milken served 22 months in prison before being released to a halfway house in January 1993.
In announcing his pardon, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the securities fraud conviction was based on “truly novel” charges that “had never been charged before as crimes.” She also pointed to his charitable work in the years following his conviction.
Milken, 73, is worth $3.7 billion, according the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Major Republican donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, as well as Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, also backed the move, according to the White House.
Also among those who backed Milken’s pardon is Nelson Peltz, the chief executive officer and founding partner of Trian Fund Management LP, according to the White House. Peltz threw a fundraiser for Trump at his Florida home on Saturday that raised more than $10 million for the president’s re-election campaign.
Trump’s pardon doesn’t reverse Milken’s lifetime ban on securities dealing, which would require a separate appeal to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Trump’s decision on Blagojevich comes almost two years after the Democratic ex-governor formally requested a commutation and sustained public appeals for mercy from his family.
Trump has repeatedly criticized Blagojevich’s prison sentence and said he would consider using his clemency power to cut it short.
The president told reporters in August he was “thinking very seriously about commuting his sentence” because Blagojevich was “treated very, very unfairly.” He tweeted the following day that many saw his prison sentence that “White House staff is continuing the review of this matter.”
Blagojevich, 63, was convicted in 2011 of 17 charges for what federal prosecutors said was a sweeping corruption plot that included an attempt to sell former President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. The governor was impeached and removed from office in January 2009, about one month after he was arrested by FBI agents at his home.
Trump and Blagojevich have some personal history. Before his conviction, the former governor appeared on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” a spinoff of the long-running reality television hosted by Trump.
Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, has also made numerous appearances on Fox News to ask Trump to shorten her husband’s prison term. The president referred to her comments when speaking to reporters last summer about a possible commutation.
“I watched his wife, on television, saying that the young girl’s father has been in jail for now seven years, and they’ve never seen him outside of an orange uniform,” Trump said. “His wife, I think, is fantastic.”
While Blagojevich is a Democrat, his wife has framed clemency as a way for the president to exact revenge for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which Trump has repeatedly decried as a “hoax.”
Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Blagojevich’s case, is friends with former FBI Director James Comey and served as his personal lawyer. Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia stemmed from a probe begun under Comey’s watch.
“This same cast of characters that did this to my family are out there trying to do it to the president,” Patti Blagojevich told the Chicago Sun-Times in an April 2018 phone interview.
Fitzgerald was also the special prosecutor who led the federal investigation into I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, whom Trump pardoned in 2018 for lying to federal agents probing the leak of a CIA officer’s identity. Libby was former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
The White House has fielded multiple requests for Blagojevich’s clemency, including from well-known Democrats like civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who wrote a letter to Trump last summer.
Fitzgerald and other former federal prosecutors who handled Blagojevich’s case issued a statement saying: “The former governor was convicted of very serious crimes. His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account.”
But House Republicans had urged him not to offer clemency to Blagojevich. A group of GOP lawmakers representing Illinois wrote Tuesday that they were “disappointed” by the president’s move, saying Blagojevich “is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters.”
Also Tuesday, Trump pardoned David Safavian, the former top procurement official in George W. Bush’s administration, who was sentenced to one year in prison for lying about his association with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and helping Abramoff obtain government business. Safavian was released in 2012.
Grisham said Safavian “dedicated his life to criminal justice reform” since his release and supported the bipartisan First Step Act, which Trump signed into law. His pardon was backed by former White House official Mercedes Schlapp and her husband, Matt, as well as liberal activist Van Jones, who focuses on criminal justice issues.
Kerik, who served as police commissioner under Giuliani, was originally given a sentence that was longer than federal guidelines called for because the judge said he was a top police official who committed crimes as part of a bid to head the federal Homeland Security Department.”
“The guidelines don’t fully take into account the almost operatic proportions of this case,” the judge said. “When these tax laws were being violated, they were being violated not just by anyone. They were being violated by the police commissioner of New York City.”
Kerik, pleaded guilty to eight counts, including having an unidentified company make $255,000 in renovations to an apartment he purchased in the Riverdale section of New York in exchange for doing business with the city.
He alsoadmitted to lying on a loan application, obstructing Internal Revenue Service laws, filing a false tax return, lying to the federal government and failing to report wages he paid to a nanny for his children.
He was later charged separately in Washington with lying to the White House about the New York matter in 2004 while being considered for the top job at the U.S. Homeland Security Department. He pleaded guilty to crimes in both cases.
In the case involving the former 49ers’ owner, DeBartolo never served prison time. The case began with allegations that he paid former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards $400,000 for a riverboat casino license, according to the Associated Press.
DeBartolo agreed to testify against Edwards, helping him avoid a prison sentence. Edwards was charged with racketeering and conspiracy related to the granting of casino licenses. DeBartolo received two years probation and was fined $1 million.
(Updates with DeBartolo in final three paragraphs.)
--With assistance from Patricia Hurtado and Shruti Date Singh.
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