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The cottage industry behind Trump’s pardons: How the rich and well-connected got ahead at the expense of others

  • Author: Beth Reinhard, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Josh Dawsey, The Washington Post
  • Updated: February 5
  • Published February 5

As president, Donald Trump issued a blizzard of 144 pardon and commutations in his final hours at the White House. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

A federal judge in South Dakota was blunt last summer when she sentenced Paul Erickson, a seasoned Republican operative who had pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering.

“What comes through is that you’re a thief, and you’ve betrayed your friends, your family, pretty much everyone you know,” federal District Judge Karen Schreier told Erickson in July, before sentencing him to seven years in prison for scamming dozens of people out of $5.3 million.

But Erickson, who had advised GOP presidential campaigns and a noted conservative organization, had a way out.

He had the ear of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, a member of President Donald Trump’s inner orbit. And, unrelated to his conviction, he had been caught up in the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, an inquiry much reviled by Trump.

And so after less than five months in prison, Erickson received a pardon and was freed on Inauguration Day — part of a blizzard of 144 clemency grants issued in Trump’s final hours in office after a process marked by unprecedented favoritism and a rush by well-paid lobbyists.

Erickson and his attorney declined to comment.

“I was completely blindsided,” said Lisa Coll Nicolaou, a New Jersey teacher whom Erickson persuaded to invest in a fraudulent medical device company after befriending her at their 25th college reunion. Contrary to Trump’s oft-cited pledge to root out corruption in Washington, Coll Nicolaou said: “He pardoned the swamp.”

The Constitution gives the president the virtually unchecked power to grant clemency. Trump’s use of that power reflected how he viewed the presidency through the prism of his own interests and as a way to reward friends and spite enemies, according to longtime clemency advocates and people who participated in the process.

His transactional approach largely sidelined low-level offenders who had waited years after filing petitions through the Justice Department and elevated those with personal connections to the White House - or the money to pay someone with those connections.

Even Trump allies who advised the White House on clemency say they were startled and disappointed by who was on the final list.

In all, Trump granted 237 pardons and commutations, according to the Justice Department, the majority of which he issued in a frantic final session with White House lawyers during his last night as president. A Washington Post review of pardon records found that about 100 of those granted clemency had never even petitioned the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews applications using standardized criteria to impose order and fairness on the process. Only about one-third of the grants went to drug offenders serving long sentences.

An additional 14,000 people who had filed petitions under the federal guidelines were left in limbo.

“Along with the devastating harm Trump wrought upon clemency as an institution are the unfathomable injustices of Trump diverting the power from those critically needing and warranting clemency to his menagerie of undeserving recipients,” said Larry Kupers, who ran the pardon office at the beginning of the Trump administration.

Former White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

When President Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people on his last day in office in 2001, including fugitive financier and Democratic donor Marc Rich, Republicans railed against what they dubbed “Pardongate,” and criminal and congressional investigations were opened.

There has been little such blowback for Trump, whose last-minute pardon spree has been eclipsed by the fallout from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, including his second impeachment.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., whose House Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday about preventing abuse of the clemency process, said a full-scale congressional investigation of Trump’s pardons is needed.

Cohen pointed to Alice Johnson - a former Tennessee resident imprisoned for nearly 22 years for nonviolent drug crimes - as an example of someone who was deserving of clemency but didn’t receive it until Kim Kardashian West, a Trump-friendly celebrity, brought her name to the White House.

“Under Trump, pardon decisions were all about who you knew,” Cohen said. “The overall Trump record is a perversion of the pardon power and an abuse of it.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said this week that he has deep concerns about Trump’s pardons and will reintroduce legislation that would require the Justice Department and the White House to provide detailed information to Congress about any presidential pardon or commutation involving the president or his relatives, obstruction of Congress or contempt of Congress.

For years, criminal justice experts have pushed to overhaul the Justice Department’s backlogged system for vetting pardon applicants, in which prosecutors wield significant influence. Some initially held out hope that a Trump administration that touted its commitment to reforming the criminal justice system might improve the clemency process, helping to alleviate the racial inequities in the country’s prison population.

Instead, pardons were doled out haphazardly, driven largely by personal connections rather than public policy decisions, according to people with knowledge of the decisions. And even some of those whose clients benefited acknowledge that the process broke down.

Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney, had feet in both camps: He advised the White House on pardons while also charging some clients to lobby for their clemency.

Although he says he thinks the traditional process run by the Justice Department is flawed, “I also don’t like this informal system that developed with the Trump White House, in which people were pushing to get their names in,” he added. “That, to me, is not a system that is right, because there are thousands of people who don’t have that chance.”

A cottage industry emerges

By late 2019, Trump seemed intent on identifying people with compelling stories who were deserving of clemency, such as Johnson, who had been sentenced to life for a first-time drug offense.

That October, more than one year after her release, she was invited to attend a speech the president gave on criminal justice reform in Columbia, S.C. In the middle of his remarks, Trump called on Johnson to help him find other inmates worthy of pardons.

Johnson said she took Trump at his word. She became part of an informal kitchen cabinet that included Tolman, who echoed Trump’s concerns about voter fraud in the November presidential election; Mark Holden, chairman of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity; Matt Whitaker, a former acting U.S. attorney general under Trump; and Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general who represented the president in his first impeachment.

Then-President Donald Trump listens as Alice Johnson, whose sentence he commuted, speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration at the White House. (Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary)

The group viewed itself as part of a White House initiative - led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner - aimed at creating a more organized and streamlined clemency system.

But soon, a cottage industry emerged of lawyers and lobbyists who sought to leverage their access to the White House for clients seeking pardons.

Among those who were paid to lobby last year for pardon-seekers, according to public records, were Jack Burkman, a political operative who has repeatedly spread debunked claims and commanded more than $92,000 from the wife of one convicted fraudster who did not secure a pardon; Joshua Nass, a New York-based public relations executive who received $100,000 in December from four clients, none of whom received clemency; and Nick Muzin, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) who has worked as a foreign agent for Qatar.

Muzin reported receiving $75,000 to lobby on behalf of Eliyahu Weinstein, who served eight years of a 24-year sentence for a real estate fraud that bilked investors out of $200 million, according to court filings. Trump commuted his sentence. Muzin said in an email that he is “proud” of the role his firm played in giving Weinstein “a second chance.”

Nass said he pushed successful clemency petitions earlier in the Trump administration and sought to “manage expectations” for his clients so that they understood the “great challenge.”

Burkman did not respond to requests for comment.

Separately, the Washington, D.C.-based Sonoran Policy Group publicly registered Monday as a lobbyist seeking a presidential commutation in connection with George Nader, an international business executive who tried to broker ties between the United States and foreign leaders before he pleaded guilty to child sex charges. According to the filing, which did not disclose the amount of the fee, the group’s registration was effective as of Dec. 17.

Nader, who was sentenced in June to 10 years in prison, has not received clemency. Robert Stryk, who leads the Sonoran firm, declined to comment.

Alan Dershowitz, who served as a lawyer for Trump during his first impeachment, said he also was hired by Nader’s team in late 2019 to advise on legal issues and that they discussed clemency, but said he did not help Nader file a petition and that his advice was “not encouraging.”Dershowitz was named in the White House release as having endorsed four successful pardon requests among Trump’s final grants of clemency.

“Knowing who to call in the White House is a not a guarantee of success by any means,” he said. “I had a mixed record.”

In this image from video, Alan Dershowitz, an attorney for President Donald Trump answers a question during the impeachment trial against Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)

It is unclear how many lobbyists were paid to pursue Trump pardons. Federal lobbying guidelines do not explicitly cover appeals for clemency, and lawyers and other advocates have not traditionally registered as federal lobbyists when seeking pardons. A Justice Department investigation of allegations of unregistered lobbying for a pardon — revealed in heavily redacted court documents unsealed in December — may have spurred some lobbyists to disclose their clients and fees.

Tolman, who served as U.S. attorney in Utah during the George W. Bush administration and went on to advocate for changes in the criminal justice system, had been involved in policy discussions with the White House when he registered as a lobbyist for eight people seeking pardons last year.

He said he started charging lobbying fees of up to $25,000 because he was trying to keep up his law practice while juggling a flood of clemency requests, some of which demanded as much work as preparing for trial.

“It was a labor of love borne out of my desire to change the system and my compassion for those individuals than it was for my financial gain,” he said.

Tolman said he also advocated during the Trump administration for at least 20 other people on a pro bono basis. They mostly included drug offenders serving long sentences, as well as well-heeled insiders such as Kushner’s father, real estate developer Charles Kushner, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. Trump granted Kushner a pardon in December.

Tolman said that although he had not spoken to Trump personally since late November, he was able to directly email the White House Counsel’s Office - an advantage he realizes many others who deserved pardons did not have.

“I don’t think it’s inconsistent to say I wanted to get clemencies and that was the damn system we had to deal with it,” he said.

He registered as a lobbyist, he said, to “err on the side of transparency.”

But in the two cases in which his clients received clemency, the White House identified Tolman as a former U.S. attorney who backed the requests - not as a paid lobbyist. He noted that his lobbyist registrations were public.

The biggest fee reported by the clemency-seeking lobbying corps went to a staunch Trump ally: Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who charged $750,000 for about a month of work, public filings show.

Schlapp’s lobbying client was Parker “Pete” Petit, a prominent Atlanta-area biopharmaceutical executive convicted of securities fraud on Nov 19. His lawyers were trying to move quickly to secure a pardon before Trump left office.

“Pete Petit is 81 years old and suffering from bladder cancer. A sentence of incarceration for Mr. Petit would be the equivalent of a death sentence,” Michael Volkov, one of Petit’s attorneys, said in a written statement to The Post.

Although the longtime Republican donor had served as finance chairman for the Trump campaign in Georgia in 2016, Petit did not have a personal relationship with the president, according to people familiar with his case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his upcoming sentencing.

Petit’s lawyers decided they needed someone who could plead his case directly to Trump. They contacted Schlapp, the husband of former White House communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp.

Schlapp referred questions to Volkov, who said Schlapp reported the lobbying fee based on legal advice and because “we all wanted to do this right.”

“Matt Schlapp agreed to help Mr. Petit seek a Presidential Pardon along with additional consulting services related to Pete’s desire to pass on life lessons and play a role in criminal justice reform efforts,” he added.

Schlapp personally asked Trump about the pardon, according to a person familiar with the process. Petit’s team was optimistic about his chances, but he was not on the final list.

The omission surprised Clayton Halunen, a Minnesota lawyer who represented a whistleblower involved in the Petit case.

“When I looked the pardon list, I would have bet my life that his name would be on it - and that was before I learned that he hired a lobbyist and paid $750,000,” Halunen said. “Obviously, there’s a big problem if you think that you can use money to buy justice or forgiveness.”

A final scramble — and disappointment

In the last days of the Trump administration, aides prepared paperwork for more than 400 pardons and commutations as the president kept vacillating about which ones to grant, according to people involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive discussions.

Aides said Trump solicited clemency requests from a wide range of advisers, sometimes even offering pardons to those who did not request them, and considered granting pardons to himself and his family, though they have not been charged with any crimes.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone officially ran the process, but Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner served as key gatekeepers, the people said.

Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, helped serve as gatekeepers of the final clemency list, according to people familiar with the process. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

In the end, the final list that the White House released at 12:50 a.m. on Trump’s last night as president had been assembled so hastily that it contained inaccurate information about some cases. Detailed background information was provided about some clemency recipients and the people who had vouched for them, but there was little information about others who were chosen.

Holden, of Americans for Prosperity, and other advocates were crushed to find that some inmates they had been told would be freed were not.

“It’s like a sick joke, because we were so excited,” said Nick Scarmazzo of Modesto, Calif., whose younger brother, Luke Scarmazzo, was seeking a commutation of a 22-year sentence for selling marijuana. “It would have been better if we had never known he was close.”

Added Holden, who had helped push for Scarmazzo’s release: “I don’t know why some people made the list and others didn’t.”

Doug Deason, a major Texas-based Trump donor and supporter of criminal justice reform, said the White House appeared “distracted” after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as he and other advocates pressed for commutations for hundreds of inmates serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

“Everyone was disappointed,” Deason said of the clemency list. “I don’t know what happened to many of the names.”

Among those who made it on the list was Republican megadonor Elliott Broidy, who had raised millions for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2008, file photo, Elliott Broidy poses for a photo at an event in New York. (AP Photo/David Karp, File)

His pardon was among several clemency grants that some top White House officials, including Cipollone, urged Trump to resist, according to the people familiar with the process.

Justice Department guidelines recommend inmates wait five years after conviction or release from confinement - whichever comes later - before submitting a pardon application. Broidy, who had served as a top finance official at the Republican National Committee, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign lobbyist just three months ago and had not even been sentenced.

His case touched directly on the Trump administration. In court filings, he acknowledged that he illegally lobbied top White House officials on behalf of Malaysian and Chinese interests without registering and, as part of his illegal activity, attempted to broker a meeting between Trump and the Malaysian prime minister. He also had a criminal record from a 2009 guilty plea in which he agreed that he gave illegal gifts to officials involved in New York state’s pension fund.

The White House did not explain why Trump extended him mercy, beyond saying that Broidy is “well known for his numerous philanthropic efforts” and citing 21 people, including several Trump allies, who endorsed his application.

Broidy has not spoken to Trump for two years, and never spoke with him or any White House personnel about his case, according to a representative for the Los Angeles-based investor. The representative added that the White House indicated that Trump had heard from people he respected who supported the pardon request.

One former associate of Broidy was particularly upset about his pardon: Nickie Lum Davis, a Hawaii business executive who pleaded guilty in August to aiding and abetting him in his lobbying efforts. She is set to be sentenced in June.

As part of her plea, she had agreed to cooperate with the government, a decision that the Justice Department generally views favorably. Trump, however, has shown disdain for people who cooperate with prosecutors.

Filings show that Davis paid $100,000 to a consulting firm led by Mark Cowan, a member of Trump’s transition team, to try to secure clemency for herself, but was unsuccessful.

Cowan declined to comment. William McCorriston, an attorney for Davis, said her submission to the White House included letters of support and proof of her philanthropy. He said her legal team did not learn why Broidy was pardoned and she was overlooked, even though she had acted in a secondary capacity to his crime.

He said she was “distraught.”

“She doesn’t understand how this equates to justice,” McCorriston said. “It is incomprehensible that any decision to grant clemency to Mr. Broidy would not also include a pardon for Ms. Davis.”

H. Christopher Bartolomucci, an attorney for Broidy, said in a statement that “the fact that the President decided to pardon Mr. Broidy but not Ms. Lum Davis does not mean that his pardon was somehow improper or that she was improperly denied one.”

Another pardon that generated criticism was the one that went to Erickson, a conservative political operative well known in Republican circles.

Erickson came under the scrutiny of federal investigators because he was romantically linked to Maria Butina, a Russian graduate student who pleaded guilty in 2018 to acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin.

As part of her plea, Butina admitted that she worked with an American political operative - identified by government officials as Erickson - to advance Russia’s interests by forging ties with the National Rifle Association, conservative leaders and presidential candidates such as Trump.

Butina served 15 months in prison and was then deported to Russia. Erickson was never charged in her case.

But in 2019, prosecutors in South Dakota accused him of wire fraud and money laundering connected to three investment schemes dating to 1996. He agreed to plead guilty nine months later to two felonies in a case unrelated to his work with Butina.

Kellyanne Conway speaks in the Briefing Room at the White House in Washington in 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Among his many friends in Washington is Conway, who spoke to Trump and the White House Counsel Office about his pardon, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The Trump White House said in its statement about the final clemency grants that Erickson’s conviction “was based off the Russian collusion hoax. After finding no grounds to charge him with any crimes with respect to connections with Russia, he was charged with a minor financial crime.”

The language infuriated Erickson’s victims, who lost money in fraudulent businesses that had no connection to Russia.

“Minor to who?” demanded Susan Holden, a Yale classmate of Erickson’s who at his urging had invested in a scheme to build housing for workers in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields.

For years, Holden said that Erickson lied to her on a near-daily basis about the project, guaranteeing that she would not lose money. He even traveled to North Dakota to meet her and her 80-year-old mother, showing off a parcel of land he claimed had been purchased with her money.

In fact, Erickson admitted in court that he never bought any land for the project. His pardon means he no longer has to pay her or his other victims restitution.

“I was crushed,” Holden said. “All I could think of was, ‘Goddamnit, Trump, you didn’t even look into the case. Kellyanne walked into your office and said, ‘This poor guy, Russia witch hunt’ - and you did it.’”

Asked about criticism of the pardon, Conway said: “President Trump reviewed the Erickson matter and hundreds of requests like it at length with his legal counsel.” She added that she received no money for the pardon, adding, “It had never crossed my mind that individuals would either offer or accept money with the expectation of a presidential pardon.”

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The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig, Alice Crites, Aaron Schaffer and Amy Brittain contributed to this report.

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