In another White House administration, these pardons may have sparked political scandal, but outgoing President Donald Trump’s shock-and-awe waves of clemency relegated them to local news and second-day leads.
“Trump is using the pardon power as his latest slush fund to reward his backers, allies and cronies,” Norm Eisen, a former White House ethics czar under former President Barack Obama and one of Trump’s impeachment prosecutors, told Law&Crime in a phone interview.
“Trump is like a crooked Santa,” cracked Eisen, who is currently a senior fellow at Brookings. “If you were going to make a movie about these pardons, you’d call it Bad Santa: Part II.”
Here are some of the questionable pardons that barely received attention on Wednesday night, because their names were not Paul Manafort, Charles Kushner, or Roger Stone.
Jesse Benton and John Tate
Both top staffers for the quixotic 2012 presidential campaign of ex-Rep. Ron Paul, Benton and Tate were convicted by a jury of hiding payments for what prosecutors described as a bribery-for-endorsement scheme.
Through a video production company, the aides paid $73,000 to then-Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who changed his endorsement from Michelle Bachmann to Paul shortly before the Iowa caucuses. A jury found they illegally recorded the payments as “audio/visual expenses,” rather than buying endorsements.
The White House’s statement on the pardons made clear that Trump issued them at the behest of Paul’s son, who happens to be one of his top Senate loyalists and dutiful post-election conspiracy theorists.
“This action is supported by Senator Rand Paul and Lee Goodman, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission,” the White House statement states.
The direct ties to the lame-duck president go further than that. Benton served as a chief strategist for the pro-Trump super PAC Great America. His attorney Angela Campbell declined comment for this story.
Unlike Sorenson—who was sentenced to 15 months in prison—Benton and Tate received two-year probation sentences that expired in September 2018, but they kept fighting to clear their names up to the Supreme Court, where they were rebuffed by Trump’s own solicitor general Noel Francisco.
“Petitioners do not suggest that they will be affected in any meaningful practical way by the precise nature of the felony convictions on their records,” Francisco wrote in a February 2019 brief. “The minimal practical importance of this case for petitioners underscores that it does not warrant this court’s review.”
The conservative high court, which by then had two Trump appointees, denied their petitions a month later.
Mary Ballard McCarty
Former Palm Beach County commissioner Mary McCarty’s corruption crime is not in dispute. She resigned shortly before pleading guilty to honest services fraud in 2009.
Born Mary Ballard, she is the sister of Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for the outgoing president who has been described as the “Most Influential Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”
Ms. McCarty’s brother attained that title, in part, by being one of Trump’s most effective financial backers. On top of his personal six-figure donations to the president and his committees, Ballard bundled millions more through Trump Victory, a joint political action committee.
Her attorney Dave Bogenschutz celebrated the act of clemency and denied knowledge of any effort by her brother to pursue her release.
“I am extremely happy with this action by the President acknowledging the change in the law which makes her conviction, today at least, questionable,” Bogenschutz told Law&Crime in an email.
U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who sentenced her, skewered her belated attack on the honest services fraud statute in 2009.
“If she thought it was unconstitutional she should have challenged it–not claim to accept responsibility, but ask that its criminal penalties be ignored,” he wrote at the time.
The White House notes that a Ballard lobbyist asked for McCarty’s pardon, though it does not disclose that affiliation outright.
“Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Christopher Ruddy are among those supportive of Ms. McCarty,” the release states.
Bondi, who was implicated in a pay-for-play scandal involving Trump University, has worked as Ballard’s registered agent for Qatar both before and after defending the president at his impeachment trial. (Ballard’s firm, though not Bondi herself, also represented the Turkish government and its state-run Halkbank, whose money laundering prosecution Trump reportedly tried to scuttle throughout one term in office.) Bondi declined to prosecute Trump’s so-called university after receiving a donation from his business.
The first Trump pardon listed on the White House press release on Wednesday night, doled to convicted tax cheat James Kassouf, was also supported by Bondi.
McCarty’s attorney said she did not know whether her brother played any role in the pardon.
“I have no knowledge of any actions taken to secure that pardon by Mr. Ballard or anyone else, but do know and believe that Mary’s pardon was richly deserved,” Bogenschutz added in his email. “She was, and is, the epitome of what an excellent public servant should be. Merry Christmas, Mary!”
Her sentencing judge was far less flattering.
“She participated in a system not entirely of her own making, which has proven to be a recipe for corruption,” Middlebrooks wrote in a 4-page memo. “Her power became beguiling, and she rationalized that in helping her husband’s bond business, she was not hurting anyone because money was not coming directly from taxpayers. The pay to play culture created a sense of entitlement to gifts and benefits. In saying this, I do not minimize the crime. The victim of this behavior is democracy and a shared belief that a public office is a public trust.”
Ruddy is the CEO of Newsmax. The network currently faces legal threats from voting technology and voting machine companies Smartmatic and Dominion over its coverage of Trump’s efforts to discredit the outcome of the 2020 election.
The White House does not claim that McCarty was innocent, only that later Supreme Court precedent weakened anti-corruption laws since her prosecution.
“The Supreme Court has since interpreted that statute more narrowly, meaning that Ms. McCarty’s conduct might not be criminally prosecuted today,” their announcement states, without evidence.
Just as four Blackwater guards prosecuted for the Nisour Square massacre benefited from Trump’s first wave of holiday season pardons, the second round also rewarded abuse of civilians—to much less outcry.
Brugman, a former Border Patrol agent, was sentenced to 27 months in prison for his unprovoked assault on Mexican immigrant Miguel Angel Jimenez-Saldana in January 2001.
That characterization of Brugman’s civil-rights abuse comes, not from immigration advocates, but from Trump’s former Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who resigned in the shadow of his sweetheart plea deal to Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2013, Acosta had been serving as an assistant attorney general when he opposed Brugman’s appeal to the Fifth Circuit with this description of his offense.
“The defendant approached and asked the illegal aliens in Spanish in an angry or agitated voice, “Why did you run?” or “Do you want to run?” The defendant then directed his questions specifically to one man, Miguel Jimenez-Saldana, asking him, “Do you like to run? You like to run, huh?” Jimenez-Saldana, who was seated on the ground as ordered, did not move or respond. […] The defendant struck Jimenez-Saldana with his foot, pushing him to the ground. Although he did not fight back, resist, or move, the defendant then struck Jimenez-Saldana again with his hands. […] The defendant repeated these actions with the man seated next to Jimenez-Saldana, asking him also whether he liked to run and then pushing him to the ground with his foot and striking him with his hands. The second man also did not fight back, resist, or move”
That recitation of the facts of Brugman’s case is a far cry from the White House release.
“While protecting our borders at Eagle Pass, Texas, Mr. Brugman intercepted nearly a dozen illegal immigrants, pursued them on foot, and apprehended them,” it stated. “Mr. Brugman was accused of knocking one of the illegal immigrants to the ground and was prosecuted on that basis for deprivation of rights.”
Appellate courts did not think much about Brugman’s purported plight, but the disgraced border agent won the backing of a phalanx of conservative politicians and talking heads.
Trump-loyalist Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Reps. Louie Gohmert, Ted Poe, Steve King, Paul Gosar, Walter Jones, Brian Babin, and John Culberson urged the outgoing president to pardon him. So did the hard-right commentariat, including Laura Ingraham, Sara Carter, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and Bernie Kerik, himself the beneficiary of a controversial Trump pardon.
Law&Crime reached out to Brugman and representatives to other clemency recipients in this story, which will be updated with any comments.
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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