The recent wave of violence sweeping the nation is reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s, when the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) engaged in violence, killing about two dozen and injuring hundreds. Americans were reminded of the carnage two decades later when Bill Clinton dished out pardons and commutations at the end of his presidency.
The 42nd president’s 1999 commutation of the sentences of a dozen Puerto Rican FALN terrorists was a total surprise. Bill Clinton reviewed 3,229 clemency petitions requesting commutations since taking office until August 1999. He only approved three.
Clinton turned down 99.9 percent of the commutation requests until the day he decided to award clemency to the 16 FALN and Los Macheteros terrorists. Perhaps even more amazing was that Clinton offered commutations to the 16 even though not a single one of those convicted terrorists petitioned for his or her own release.
An organization calling itself Ofensiva ’92 first submitted a clemency request for the terrorists to Clinton shortly after he took office. During those six years, Clinton never saw fit to grant clemency. That all changed only days after Hillary became a candidate for the U.S. Senate for the state of New York. Puerto Rican voters represented a sizable voting bloc in New York. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who would be the GOP candidate for senator (although he later withdrew from the race when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer), was very popular in the Puerto Rican community. Giuliani captured 43 percent of the Puerto Rican vote in his last mayoral election in 1997.
On August 11, 1999, Clinton shocked the entire law enforcement community, the hundreds of victims of Puerto Rican terrorism, and the public by offering executive clemency to the Puerto Rican terrorists. Clinton offered clemency despite the fact that his own Justice Department recommended against clemency nearly three years earlier in 1996. Clinton did not see fit to grant the clemency request until after it became clear the release of the Puerto Rican terrorists had value to the political campaign of Hillary.
In return, Clinton asked the clemency recipients to renounce violence. He even gave them an entire month to mull over his offer. Their acceptance, it turned out, was easier said than done.
As far as law enforcement authorities knew at that time, an agreement by the terrorists to renounce violence would have amounted to little more than a Trojan horse. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons had secretly and legally taped conversations among the terrorists. The group vowed to continue using violence once they were released. Remarkably, the White House claimed it did not know of the existence of the tapes while simultaneously claiming it conducted an exhaustive four-year review of the clemency request.
Perhaps even more stunning was Clinton offered clemency to a group of bombers while convicted Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bomber Timothy McVeigh awaited his execution on death row.
The reason for Clinton’s generous offer of clemency was explained by his longtime political adviser, Dick Morris. Morris wrote in Rewriting History, “The key difference between New York politics and those of any other state in America is its balkanization into a dozen or more ethnic voting blocs.” Morris noted that Puerto Ricans and Hasidic Jews had broken with automatically supporting Democratic politicians and had increasingly turned toward Republicans. Morris observed, “These groups are key targets for anyone seeking political office. Every politician caters to them, as one might expect, with patronage, promises, and platitudes. But only Hillary and Bill gave them pardons.”
The immense political value of the clemency offer in boosting Hillary’s Senate candidacy in the Puerto Rican community was apparent to the Clinton administration. In an inter-office memorandum, White House staffer Mayra Martinez-Fernandez wrote, “Most Puerto Ricans agree that their sentences should be commuted.” She continued, “The release of these Puerto Rican men and women … will have a positive impact among strategic Puerto Rican communities to the US (read, voters).”
The Clinton administration refused to publicly release any of the clemency recommendations made by the law enforcement community. This was because the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. prosecutors, the FBI, and state and local police officers were universal in opposing Clinton’s clemency offer.
Giuliani came out forcefully against the clemency, pointing out the terrorists were tied to the 1975 bombing of the historic Fraunces Tavern that killed four. Yet Hillary Clinton waited nearly a month after her husband’s clemency offer before she made her first statement on the affair. This delay gave Hillary ample time to measure the widespread public disapproval of the clemency offer.
A month after Clinton’s clemency offer, Hillary claimed she had “no involvement in or prior knowledge of the decision.” But Hillary’s assertion was a complete lie. Two days before her husband offered clemency Hillary was personally presented with material in support of clemency by New York City Councilman Jose Rivera. The packet of material included a letter from Rivera asking Hillary to “speak to the president and ask him to consider granting executive clemency.”
The hypocrisy of Clinton’s generous clemency offer to the Puerto Rican terrorists who blew up buildings, set fires, and conducted shootings killing eight and wounding nearly 100 was underscored about a year earlier when he forcefully denounced similar terrorism.
“I have said many times that terrorism is one of the greatest dangers we face in this new global era,” said Clinton in televised remarks when he announced air strikes launched against a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan and a vacant training camp in Afghanistan. “We saw its [terrorism’s] twisted mentality at work last week in the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which took the lives of innocent Americans and Africans and injured thousands more,” he continued. Clinton falsely claimed that the region’s largest medicine factory was manufacturing chemical weapons for Al Qaeda. The strikes were ordered the same day Monica Lewinsky testified before a federal grand jury regarding her sexual relationship with Clinton.
Twelve of the FALN terrorists accepted Clinton’s clemency offer and signed statements agreeing to refrain from engaging in violence after their release. Not one of the convicted felons ever apologized for their actions or expressed any remorse for those killed, maimed, or injured, nor did they apologize to anyone who lost loved ones.
Even before the ink on their commutations was dry, the group refused to accept any responsibility for their crimes. Speaking on their behalf, attorney Jan Susler said, “They are no criminals. They are political people.” The about-to-be freed Puerto Rican terrorists delivered a big “Screw You” to the American public.
Eleven of those granted clemency were to be immediately released. Juan Enrique Segarra-Palmer was the co-founder of Los Macheteros. He was an armored truck robbery mastermind, the man who engineered the machine gun attack that killed two U.S. Navy sailors, and the leader responsible for $45 million in damage to several Air National Guard aircraft. Segarra-Palmer only served 10 years of his 55-year sentence. Clinton reduced Segarra-Palmer’s sentence to 15 years, allowing him to go free in only five years’ time.
The 11 who were granted clemency and were immediately released were Edwin Cortes, Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jimenez, Adolfo Matos, Dylcia Pagan, Alicia Rodriguez, Ida Luz Rodriguez, Luis Rosa, Alberto Rodriguez, Alejandrina Torres, and Carmen Valentine.
After he was released from the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Cortes announced that the terrorists were not “criminals,” but instead “were patriots.” Roberto Maldonado Rivera and Norman Ramirez-Talavera also accepted the clemency offer. They had been released from prison years earlier, and Clinton’s clemency offer allowed them to walk away from not paying the fines they received in their federal sentencing. Maldonado was fined $100,000 and Ramirez-Talavera $50,000.
Two of the terrorists, Oscar Lopez-Rivera and Antonio Camacho-Negron, refused to renounce terrorism and forfeited their opportunity for executive clemency — under this President Clinton.
Margaret C. Love, the pardon attorney in the Justice Department from 1990 to 1997, disapproved of Clinton’s politicization of the commutation and pardon process. She said, “Now clemency has been taken hostage in the war on crime.”
Mark Hyman is the national investigative correspondent for Sinclair Broadcast Group. This essay was adapted from Pardongate: How Bill & Hillary Clinton and Their Brothers Profited from Pardons, on sale June 30, 2020. You can follow him on Twitter and Parler at @MarkHyman.