The New York Daily News
September 05, 1999
 
 
How Bill Choose Clemency
 
Gore run, not Hil, a top concern

                   By EDWARD LEWINE
                   Daily News Staff Writer

                   As the furor over President Clinton's recent clemency offer to
                   16 militant Puerto Rican nationalists continues, new
                   evidence suggests the timing of the decision might have had
                   more to do with the 1998 impeachment proceedings than with the
                   First Lady's New York Senate campaign, as critics have charged.

                   The White House also badly misjudged the repercussions of the
                   decision on both sides of the clemency question. Though most of
                   the critics have been the President's political enemies and police
                   injured in FALN terrorist acts, restrictions placed on the clemency
                   also have angered many in the Puerto Rican community and
                   made it hard for the prisoners to accept the deal.

                   Lawyers for the FALN members have denounced the Clinton
                   offer as unfair.

                   "I don't think the President understood the reaction that Puerto
                   Ricans would have on all sides of the issue," said Rep. Nydia
                   Velazquez (D-Brooklyn).

                   The dustup began Aug. 11, when the President offered clemency
                   to 16 former members of the FALN the Spanish acronym for
                   Armed Forces of National Liberation which was linked to
                   about 130 bombings that killed six and injured dozens from 1974
                   to 1983.

                   The presidential offer was the culmination of a six-year campaign
                   that began in 1993, when a Chicago lawyer filed clemency
                   petitions for 17 imprisoned FALN members.

                   Since then, the White House has received about 100,000 letters
                   supporting the petition.

                   Religious, civic and political leaders, including Cardinal O'Connor,
                   the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King, and
                   the National Lawyers Guild, also have appealed for clemency in
                   the case.

                   So did former President Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 and 1979
                   granted clemency to Puerto Rican nationalists convicted of
                   shooting up the House of Representatives in 1954, injuring six
                   congressmen.

                   But the most zealous advocates of clemency were the three
                   Democratic members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent:
                   Velazquez and Jose Serrano of New York, and Luis Gutierrez of
                   Chicago.

                   Clemency discussions at the White House, led by White House
                   counsel Jack Quinn, intensified after 1995. There reportedly was
                   much talk about Puerto Rican votes, but not for Hillary Rodham
                   Clinton, whose Senate aspirations were years away.

                   The talk was of Al Gore's presidential bid.

                   "We made a political point," said one person involved. "You really
                   don't want to saddle Gore with this issue."

                   The White House, according to this and other sources, repeatedly
                   told the clemency advocates that political considerations would not
                   affect its decision.

                   In late 1996, Quinn resigned his White House counsel's post and
                   was replaced by lawyer Charles Ruff. Ruff became famous during
                   the President's Senate trial.

                   As Serrano remembers it, he and fellow House members told Ruff
                   how frustrated they were that they were going to have to start the
                   process over.

                   But Ruff made them a promise.

                   "Ruff was the man," Serrano recalled. "He said to me, 'Before I
                   leave, something will happen.'"

                   The White House indicated that it would make a decision on
                   clemency in 1998, months before the first Hillary-for-Senate
                   rumor.

                   "That was the goal," a federal official said. "But various events
                   occurred" a reference to the timing of the impeachment
                   proceedings against the President in the House and Senate that
                   sidelined the FALN clemency issue for the remainder of 1998 and
                   early 1999.

                   When Ruff announced in June that he was stepping down from his
                   White House post, congressional clemency advocates immediately
                   reminded him of his promise.

                   "We were calling every day," Velazquez said. "We put immense
                   pressure on him."

                   Ruff put his recommendation on the President's desk in August,
                   along with comments by other officials.

                   Although The New York Times reported that the FBI, Bureau of
                   Prisons and U.S. state attorneys opposed clemency, Deputy
                   Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department official most
                   involved with this issue, reportedly supported clemency.

                   "Eric Holder told me he was recommending that," a high-ranking
                   official said. Ruff also supported clemency, sources said. Holder
                   declined to comment.

                   The President offered the immediate release of 11 imprisoned
                   FALN members. The other five, some of them out of prison, were
                   offered other deals, such as reduced fines.

                   But the President imposed conditions: The convicts would have to
                   renounce violence and accept parole restrictions, which especially
                   angered many in the Puerto Rican community and led to talk of a
                   presidential blunder.

                   Whatever their feelings on the issue of Puerto Rican independence,
                   many Puerto Ricans admire the FALN and consider parole to be
                   an insult fit for a criminal, not a hero.

                   "As Ronald Reagan said, 'Your terrorist is my freedom fighter,'"
                   Serrano said.

                   The White House has said it was aware that its clemency
                   conditions would upset many and suggested that this was proof
                   that the President's decision was not politically motivated. As for
                   the prisoners themselves, they have decided to make a decision to
                   accept or reject the clemency offer together.

                   Knowledgeable observers think there is a good chance they will
                   refuse.

                   "I don't think most of them will accept it," said Ronald Fernandez,
                   director of the Center for Caribbean Studies at Central
                   Connecticut State University. "Clinton is asking these people to
                   admit they are criminals."

                   A Trail of Blood Over Six Decades

                   The FALN represents the third generation of militant Puerto Rican
                   nationalists imprisoned by the United States for conspiring to
                   overthrow the government.

                   The first group was the Nationalist Party, run by a revolutionary
                   named Pedro Albizu Campos.

                   Albizu went to prison from 1936 to 1942 for suggesting in a
                   speech that someone kill the Puerto Rican governor.

                   Soon thereafter, the governor was assassinated.

                   "Albizu inspired all of the groups that came after him," said Ronald
                   Fernandez, director of the Center for Caribbean Studies at Central
                   Connecticut State University.

                   In the 1950s, some of Albizu's compatriots tried to kill President
                   Harry S Truman, and others shot up the House of
                   Representatives, wounding six congressmen.

                   President Jimmy Carter freed some of these terrorists in 1977 and
                   1979 after the Puerto Rican community pleaded for their release.

                   The FALN was founded in the early 1970s in Chicago. Though it
                   never had more than 30 members, the group was responsible for
                   significant mayhem.

                   From 1974 to 1983, it was linked to about 130 bombings that
                   killed six people and injured many others.

                   The crimes included a 1975 bombing of Fraunces Tavern near
                   Wall St. that killed four, a 1976 car bombing of the Chilean
                   ambassador and a 1977 bomb in the Mobil Oil building in New
                   York that killed one.

                   The FALN suffered a major blow in 1980, when an Evanston, Ill.,
                   police officer noticed a man with a fake mustache in the front seat
                   of a van parked near a bank.

                   That led to the arrest of 11 FALN members who were preparing
                   to rob the bank and to whom President Clinton offered
                   clemency last month.

                   The FALN terrorists refused to participate in their trial and were
                   sentenced to an average of 70 years in prison.

                   But to date, only one FALN member has ever been convicted of a
                   violent crime.

                   Their supporters say they were sentenced not for anything they
                   did, but for who they were and their associations. Others point out
                   that since the last FALN arrest in 1983, there have been no more
                   FALN bombings.