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Power To Pardon Unquestioned And Often Used By Reagan

November 26, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Ronald Reagan has used his power as governor and president to pardon the crimes of more than 900 people, from country singer Merle Haggard to the former No. 2 man at the FBI.

Some friends are advising Reagan to do the same for the central figures in the Iran-Contra affair, former national security aides John M. Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North, even before any charges are brought.

The suggestion invokes memories of Watergate and President Ford’s pardon of former President Nixon, which triggered a political backlash that many analysts believe led to Ford’s defeat in the following 1976 election.

Regardless of their views on whether Reagan should do it, constitutional scholars and political analysts agree that as president Reagan has unquestioned authority in the Constitution to grant pardons to North, Poindexter, former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, or others in the affair.

That no indictments have been filed and that Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh is still investigating makes no difference in the law, although it may make a big difference politically, experts said.

″He has every constitutional right to do it. The question really is the legitimacy of it - whether it will have the support of the people,″ said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank.

The power to grant reprieves and pardons is granted to the president in the U.S. Constitution and is a virtually unlimited authority covering ″offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.″

Many states give governors the power to pardon violators of state laws. It is a power older than the country, with roots in English common law, said C. Thomas Dienes, law professor at George Washington University.

″It is a broad, sweeping power because it is unchecked,″ Dienes said.

A president doesn’t have to list the specific crime being pardoned. Since there is uncertainty about which laws Walsh may charge were violated, the president could ″pardon anything Ollie North did while serving in his National Security Council office that would constitute an offense against the United States,″ Dienes said.

Reagan has granted pardons to 323 people since becoming president, according to the Justice Department. As governor of California from 1967 to 1975, Reagan issued 597 pardons, including one in 1972 to Haggard.

He had spent three years in California’s San Quentin State Prison on burglary and escape convictions, won parole in 1960, and had become a country star for such songs as ″Okie from Muskogee,″ and ″The Fightin’ Side of Me,″ anthems of opposition to the anti-war, hippie movements of the late 1960s.

Most of Reagan’s pardons, however, involved long-ago crimes by little-known people.

They cover a wide variety of felonies. Most of the presidential pardons went through the Justice Department’s normal bureaucratic process, which allows one to apply for a pardon only after waiting at least five years after serving all criminal sentence.

A pardon does not expunge the criminal record, but some states as a result may restore the rights to vote, practice law or own a gun.

For those who have already served their sentences, the pardon may be mainly symbolic, providing ″a psychological lifting of a feeling of debt,″ said Justice Department spokesman Brad Marmon.

But the president can pardon on his own, without being asked, and wipe out pending sentences.

Reagan did just that two months after entering the White House.

In March 1981, Reagan signed pardons for W. Mark Felt, once chief deputy to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Edward S. Miller, onetime head of the bureau’s intelligence division. They had been convicted the previous November for authorizing illegal break-ins during a probe of the Weather Underground anti-war radicals in the early 1970s.

Reagan said then: ″America was generous to those who refused to serve their country in the Vietnam War. We can be no less generous to two men who acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation.″

In 1983, Reagan pardoned Eugenio R. Martinez, one of the seven men originally convicted for the Watergate break-in. A Cuban refugee who was on the CIA payroll at the time of the burglary, Martinez had completed his prison term and been turned down for pardons by presidents Ford and Carter.

Reagan has been urged recently by William P. Clark, his longtime friend and former national security adviser and Cabinet member, to pardon North and Poindexter.

Reagan, questioned by reporters Monday, refused to discuss the matter.

Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, said he believes Reagan is considering granting pardons.

Fein, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues Reagan should grant pardons both to North and Poindexter and to McFarlane because their motives were to serve the country and the president.

″I think the time is before any indictment,″ Fein said. ″It looks worse in my judgment, and it becomes more difficult to explain to the American people, if you’ve got this independent counsel out there and he’s brought an indictment and suddenly the president issues a pardon.″

Pardoning the principle figures would open the question of whether to pardon others, such as the private operators and moneymen of the Iran-Contra affair.

It would risk a political reaction that could damage the 1988 presidential hopes of the Republican Party and Vice President George Bush. And Mann, of the Brookings Institution, argues it could undermine Reagan’s legacy and weaken the presidency itself.

Both North and Poindexter testified they never told Reagan of the most damaging element of the Iran-Contra affair, the diversion of money from arms sales. There is no precedent, Mann said, for a president to pardon the very ones whose word shielded his own presidency from possible ruin.

″It will inevitably look as some kind of payoff for saving the president,″ he said. ″It will raise in the minds of the public the possibility that Poindexter and North covered for president with the understanding that at some later point he would pardon them.″

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