Pardon Attorney Cites Lack Of Resources, Access In Resignation

Posted On Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The resignation letter of United States Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff was made public Monday, following a FOIA request by USA Today.  The letter draws attention to a clemency process long shrouded in secrecy as well as to the shortcomings of President Obama’s much-touted clemency program. 

In the letter, dated January 15, 2016, Leff claims that a lack of resources and a lack of access to the Office of White House Counsel prevented her from effectively doing her job. 

The role of the Patent Attorney is to investigate pardon and commutation petitions and make recommendations to the Deputy Attorney General, who then forwards these recommendations to the Office of White House Counsel.  Since many of these cases are very sensitive, the workings of this process are typically kept secret.

In 2014, the Obama administration announced the Clemency Project, designed to use the president’s pardon power to release federal inmates (mostly nonviolent drug offenders) who would have received shorter sentences if sentenced under today’s less severe guidelines.  After the Obama administration announced the initiative, the number of clemency petitions skyrocketed – now standing at over 10,000 cases pending. 

In her resignation, Leff stated that while she supported the initiative, a lack of resources, including staffing, has stymied not only her ability to provide timely clemency recommendations, but also required that she set aside “thousands” of traditional pardon and commutation petitions as well.

Besides the funding and staffing issues, Leff also pointed to the lack of access she had during her tenure to the Office of White House Counsel.  Citing the increasing number of instances in which the Deputy Attorney General reversed the Pardon Attorney’s recommendation, Leff asserted that “it is important for the President to have a full set of views” when making the complex decisions related to clemency.

In closing, Leff pointed to the fundamental untenability of her situation: asked to address 10,000 clemency petitions with few attorneys and little support staff.  And the paltry figures yielded to date by the initiative seem to bear out Leff’s complaints: with ten months to go in his second term, President Obama has granted only seventy pardons – the fewest since John Adams.