Pardon applicants face extensive scrutiny. Officials review their personal, professional, marital and financial history. FBI agents interview friends and associates, even former spouses, and scour criminal records for offenses that applicants might have omitted. The Justice Department often solicits views from the sentencing judge and prosecutor.
But no one takes note of campaign contributions made to members of Congress or other public officials writing in support of applicants. Some officials say this is by design, that it would be inappropriate for the White House or the Justice Department to research an applicant’s political affiliation or history of donations.
“I truly did not want to know about campaign contributions and never allowed anyone on my staff to look at it,” Adams said, “because if you find that someone gave money, or didn’t give money, then you can’t have someone else wonder if that’s part of the reason why they were recommended for a pardon or denied. You just can’t go there.”
Congressional support does not ensure a pardon. In fact, the vast majority of applicants with congressional support failed, according to ProPublica’s review of letters from members of Congress to the Justice Department and the White House. About 10 percent of Bush’s 189 pardons went to people with congressional support.
“If a congressman called, you would listen to them,” said Kenneth Lee, a former associate White House counsel who reviewed pardon cases during Bush’s second term. “Sometimes it was a prominent politician. Other times it was an anguished mother with a son in prison. It helped to the extent that I would open the file and look again, but rarely did it add useful information.”
Almost from their first day in office, lawyers in the Obama White House began receiving calls from members of Congress advocating pardons.
“One of the problems with the process was the inequality of access,” said a former White House lawyer who asked to speak anonymously because he remains in government. “People with resources hire lawyers, sometimes former U.S. attorneys or former White House lawyers. It’s inherently unfair because the volume of applications is high and it’s easy to pull one out of the stack with a call.”
A Close Call
Critz’s father and grandfather built the family dealerships in Savannah into a multimillion-dollar business. In the 1980s, hoping to gain experience, Critz went to Florida to work at a dealership outside the family orbit.
Earning a promotion required selling as many as 20 cars per month. Critz, then in his mid-20s, fell in with a group of salesmen who developed a scheme to boost sales, records show. They placed newspaper ads appealing to customers with poor credit. When the potential buyers came in, the salesman put false income information on the loan applications. The deals went through and the salesmen met their quotas, but the purchasers were on the hook for payments they could not afford.
Critz pleaded guilty in 1989 to falsifying one such loan, cooperated with federal prosecutors and testified against his co-workers. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and allowed to live near his parents in Georgia.
By 1993, Critz and his wife, Debbie, were featured in Savannah Magazine as one of the city’s three “power couples.” Today, he is a well-known businessman and philanthropist who sponsors an annual half-marathon on Tybee Island in Kingston’s district. He chaired the local United Way campaign and was appointed to two local boards by the Savannah City Council.
Critz’s good works made a case for his pardon, and he had need — two factors the pardons office considers. The federal conviction stood in the way of his taking over the family franchises, which included BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Buick dealerships.
But federal officials investigating his application were disturbed by other aspects of his life, including a 1975 drunken-driving conviction and a 1982 arrest for allegedly standing on a car and being disrespectful to a police officer. On his pardon application, Critz failed to disclose those events, according to Justice Department memos. During an FBI interview, he also failed to mention that between 1998 and 2000, he had used a firearm to hunt birds. Agents had discovered that he had a hunting license during that period. Federally convicted felons are barred from possessing firearms.
In addition, Critz’s driver’s license had been suspended three times before his 1989 conviction. In the years that followed, he was cited for speeding or other traffic violations 10 times.
Kingston vouched for Critz in a 2003 letter to Adams. Describing Critz as an “exemplary citizen,” Kingston wrote, “I have known Dale for twelve years and believe that he deserves a pardon.”
The congressman also shared a copy of the letter with Paul Murphy, then associate deputy attorney general and one of Adams’s bosses at the Justice Department. Murphy forwarded the letter to Adams with a note: “Let’s discuss when you have a moment.”
In May 2003, Critz’s attorney, John Hogan, who had worked at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, called Adams to plead his client’s case.
Two months later, the U.S. attorney in Savannah, Richard Thompson, offered his unsolicited view to the pardon office — h e “wholeheartedly” and “unequivocally” endorsed Critz’s application. Former Justice Department officials said this was unusual because the case had been prosecuted by federal officials in Florida.
Persuaded, Adams recommended Critz for pardon.