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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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,'"
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
"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
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
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