Hall had known David McCall Jr. and his wife for more than 20 years. “My mother and father went to state Democratic conventions with the Halls years before,” the younger McCall said.
The family relationship with Hutchison went back further. The elder McCall’s sisters worked for Hutchison when she owned a candy company before entering politics.
At the family’s request, Hutchison and Hall served as character references on McCall’s application in late December 2003. David McCall III said he believes the Texas Republicans also spoke directly to Bush about their efforts.
In the following weeks, the McCall family gave $2,500 to Hutchison, campaign finance records show. Hall received $1,350, including one contribution three days before he wrote a personal letter to Gonzales on behalf of David McCall Jr.. The McCall family had a history of donating to Hutchison and Hall predating the pardon application.
On Valentine’s Day 2004, McCall became Bush’s 12th pardon. The president personally called McCall’s son Brian with the news.
“He was given the pardon on a Saturday and died on Tuesday,” his son David recalled.
Ten days later, the McCall family gave Hall an additional $1,650. Hutchison received another $1,000 on March 11, 2004, records show. One year later, Hutchison received another $11,400 in political contributions from the McCalls. It was the largest amount of money from the McCalls in a single year to Hutchison, who has received $21,400 from the family in all. Hall has received $5,750.
“It didn’t have anything to do with the money they gave me,” Hall said. “I was in their district and expected them to support me, but that wasn’t why I supported his pardon.”
Hall, who switched parties in early 2004 to become a Republican, said he was a believer in forgiveness and had written on behalf of five other applicants.
Adams, the pardon attorney, said McCall’s request had initially gone directly to the White House, but Associate White House Counsel Jennifer Brosnahan referred it to the Justice Department for review.
“We did do it within two to three business days, including the FBI background investigation,” Adams recalled. It was an “easy case,” Adams said. “It was the only thing he had ever done, he was close to death, and so there was no chance he would do anything wrong again.”
But internal Justice Department records show that there were concerns about granting McCall’s request. Michael Savage, the assistant U.S. attorney who had prosecuted McCall, opposed the pardon. Savage said he spoke with McCall’s son and believed that the family and “a member of the Texas congressional delegation were attempting to circumvent the usual clemency process,” according to Justice Department records.
Matthew Orwig, then the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, initially opposed the pardon because normal procedures were not followed, a Justice Department memo states.
Facing a possible denial, the Justice Department agreed to a more thorough look.
It worked. The FBI completed a background check, though McCall was too sick to be interviewed. With the pardons office involved, Orwig changed his views and supported the application, according to Justice Department memos.
“It was handled fast because the White House wanted it handled fast,” Adams said in an interview.
McCall’s son David said that the family was grateful for the congressional support and that the money had little to do with it.
“I don’t think they were substantial donations in the scheme of things,” he said. “We had supported Hall and Hutchison for 20 years or more.” He said applicants of lesser means deserve the same treatment. “I think members of Congress should weigh in on pardons and they ought to help people back at home,” McCall said. “Sometimes justice fails us and there are inequities.”
Although the pardons office routinely denies applicants who claim they are victims of injustice, McCall said his father had been innocent. “We never thought he was guilty of anything,” he said, “and my father didn’t think he was guilty, either.”
ProPublica writer Jennifer LaFleur and researchers Liz Day and Robin Respaut contributed to this report.