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Get Celebrity Endorsement and Get Pardoned

by Douglas Ankney

President Trump purchased an ad during the February 2 Super Bowl directed at African American voters that depicted black grandmother Alice Johnson in tears, saying, “I’m free to hug my family. I’m free to start over. This is the greatest day of my life ... I want to thank President Donald John Trump. Hallelujah!”

The 63-year-old Johnson had served almost 20 years of a life sentence for nonviolent drug-related crimes. Trump pardoned Johnson upon the recommendation of celebrity Kim Kardashian West. But what of the tens of thousands of other prisoners in situations similar to Johnson who don’t have a celebrity endorsement?

Nichole Forde, speaking about her own petition, said, “I almost wish it would get denied. At least I would know that someone had looked at it.” Serving a 27-year sentence for nonviolent drug crimes, Forde handwrote and then submitted her petition from prison in 2016. Prisoners cannot submit another petition until the previous one is decided.

As of January 2020, about 7,600 petitions for presidential pardons had been filed since Trump took office. Around 78 percent (5,900) of those petitions were closed by the pardon office because the prisoner had been released, died, or was ineligible.

Combined with the backlog of 11,300 requests pending when Trump took office, there are 13,000 people waiting for an answer. Of those 13,000, Trump has made a decision on just 204 with 24 approvals and 180 denials. And of those 24 fortunate ones, all but five had celebrity endorsement or were affluent and well-connected with an inside track to the White House.

Larry Kupers, former head of the pardon office that reviews petitions filed by prisoners when standard processes are followed, said, “The joy you get finding meritorious people, working on those cases, making recommendations that go to the White House, seeing people receive the grants - you feel like you’ve done something. If that’s not happening, it feels like you are spinning your wheels.”

Kupers, who quit last year, was asked what prisoners seeking leniency should do. He replied, “Find a way to get to Kim Kardashian. I’m very serious about that.”

Trump first pardoned controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The now-former sheriff had been an outspoken supporter of Trump in the 2016 election. And like Trump, Arpaio was also an outspoken bigot against people of color coming across the border.

Arpaio was convicted of violating a judge’s orders and illegally detaining suspected undocumented immigrants. Even though Justice Department regulations require prisoners to first wait five years after conviction or release (whichever is later) and then file a petition for a pardon, Arpaio did neither. Trump signaled he would pardon Arpaio even before Arpaio was convicted. And within one month of his conviction, Arpaio got his pardon.

Trump’s campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, served just 12 days in prison for lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation. Within months after his release, Papadopoulos requested a pardon. His lawyer, Caroline J. Polisi, said, “[I]t was very clear to me that a traditional submission to the DOJ Office of the Pardon Attorney would not be the most prudent strategy. Given what we knew about the unorthodox way the [P]resident has approached his granting of other pardons, we decided a less formal approach was appropriate.” Polisi refused to identify whom in the White House she approached.

Attorney Brittany K. Barnett, co-founder of a legal project that receives funding from Kardashian West, earned a national reputation by securing pardons for eight people, including Johnson. She said, “I don’t feel that someone seeking clemency should have to have celebrity endorsement, but as a lawyer, if that’s the avenue I have to free my client, then we have to pursue it. My alternative would be to let my client die in prison because Trump’s not following the protocol.” Meanwhile, Forde and those like her continue to wait for an answer, wondering if, perhaps, death in prison will be their fate.

On February 18, Trump used his pardon power to grant clemency to 11 people, almost all politically connected. Among them was Bernie Kerik, a close friend and one-time business partner of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, had served three years in federal prison on charges that included tax fraud and lying to White House officials. 



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