Should Former Speaker of Massachusetts House Receive a Presidential Pardon?

Like so many of his predecessors in the office of the Massachusetts House Speaker, former Representative Tom Finneran left the office in disgrace, convicted of obstruction of justice in 2007.

The purpose of this post is not to report this news, as it’s now a few days old, but to probe the question: Should Finneran receive a pardon from Bush? If yes, why? If not, why not?

Finneran was convicted for obstruction of justice during a probe of a state effort to re-draw state legislative districts. Allegations of racial bias surfaced in the re-drawing of key state legislative maps. Some people claimed that Finneran took an active part in trying to redraw the legislative districts in a manner that would have underrepresented minority districts in the state legislature. After insisting on his innocence for some time, he later pled guilty to lying under oath and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to 18 months’ unsupervised probation and $25,000 in fines. In addition, his license to practice law was suspended, he was denied a state pension, and he was forced to resign his then very lucrative job as president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. After leaving the Speaker’s office in disgrace, Finneran landed his current job as a talk show host on WRKO-AM 680 in Boston.

As I said, leaving the Massachusetts speaker’s office either in disgrace, or at the least under questionable ethical circumstances, is nothing new in Massachusetts legal or political circles. Finneran’s own colleague at WRKO-AM680, talk show host Howie Carr, refers to as the office of the Massachusetts House speaker as “A job title that lately has a higher recidivism rate than godfather of the Gambino Crime Family.” A colorful description, but not exactly inaccurate.

Before even addressing the substantive merits of Finneran’s request, his attempt is defective procedurally: Federal law requires that anyone convicted of, or otherwise pleads guilty to, a felony, as Finneran ultimately pleaded to, must wait at least five years before requesting a Presidential pardon. Finneran has asked that outgoing President George W. Bush not only grant his substantive pardon request, but waive the statutory five-year waiting requirement. In support of his request, Finneran has lined up the support of four former Massachusetts governors: Republicans William Weld, Paul Celucci, and Jane Swift, and also former Democratic governor Michael Dukakis. Finneran’s decidedly pro-political establishment radio talk show on WRKO-680-AM/Boston, has doubtless made this task easier, (though Michael Dukakis’ support is a little more confusing, given his well-earned reputation for tolerating no dishonesty whatsoever among elected officials during his three terms as governor. )

In support of his request, Finneran and his supporters state that he “has been punished enough” and is “genuinely remorseful” for his actions in obstructing justice in this investigation. That may be so, but it is hardly grounds alone for issuing a presidential pardon for this offense, let alone waiving the statutory five year waiting period. I suspect the real reason Finneran wants the pardon now, is so that he can cite it in a petition to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers to reinstate his license to practice law. It’s extremely likely that Finneran made this request now, chiefly due to his success in recruiting former governor Paul Celucci to his side in this effort, and due to Celucci’s close personal relationship with President Bush and the Bush family. While Finneran may share party affinity with President-elect Barack Obama, I believe he considers his chances with his Bush connections would be stronger than with Obama’s team. Also, presidential pardons are almost always granted by Presidents who are leaving office (chiefly so they can then dodge any questions later if necessary,) not assuming office as a new President. Hence, for Finneran, it’s either make the request now, while he has the Bush connections in the White House, or wait quite some time. And without a presidential pardon, any efforts to reinstate his license to practice law in Massachusetts, would be made more difficult. Not impossible, but he would have a much easier time of it, if he had in hand a pardon from the President of the United States.

I think the fairer course would be to decline Finneran’s request of the five year waiting period at this time, and require that he wait the full five years like anyone else. It may well be that he has genuine remorse for his actions, but if genuine remorse were the standard for issuing pardons for criminal convictions, our prisons would probably be half-empty, instead of overflowing. If Finneran has the support of these four former governors now, he should almost certainly have them later, when he can make the request of a new and incumbent President, not a lame-duck one on his way out the door, who has already made more stunning mistakes and questionable decisions than any President in modern U.S. history.