But Critz’s past blocked his way. Years earlier, while learning the ropes at an unrelated dealership in Florida, he took part in a scheme to falsify loan documents for low-income car buyers. He pleaded guilty in 1989 to a felony—a conviction that could have prevented him from owning the family business. Many automakers do not let felons run their franchises.
So in late 2000, Critz embarked on a campaign for forgiveness. He enlisted the help of Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, a family friend, Georgia neighbor, and regular recipient of political donations from Critz and his family.
Over the next six years, Kingston personally pressed for Critz’s pardon, writing the Justice Department and twice calling the top pardon official, Roger Adams. Adams’ recommendations are first seen by the deputy attorney general and then sent to the White House for the president’s approval or denial. In Critz’s case, the deputy opposed the pardon, noting that Critz had lied on his pardon application and to the FBI during his background check, and the recommendation did not go to the White House.
A year later, with a new deputy in place, Critz got what he wanted. On Dec. 21, 2006, he became, at 48, one of the youngest people pardoned by President George W. Bush.
Since 2000, a total of 196 members of Congress—126 Republicans and 70 Democrats—have written to the pardons office on behalf of more than 200 donors and constituents, according to copies of their letters obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the letters urged the White House and the Justice Department to take special note of felons whom lawmakers described as close friends.
A statistical analysis of nearly 500 pardon applicants during the Bush administration suggests that advocacy makes a difference. Applicants with a member of Congress in their corner were three times as likely to win a pardon as those without such backing. Interviews and documents show a lawmaker’s support can speed up a stalled application, counter negative information and ratchet up pressure for an approval.
Adams, who ran the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008, acknowledged the potential value of congressional letters. “If the official does know the person,” Adams said, “it gives it some weight.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that the agency would not comment on any individual cases but added that the process is not subject to influence.
“Any third party is free to express support for a pardon request, and those letters are part of the executive clemency file,” the spokeswoman said. “The title or position of the third party who expresses his support does not play a role in the review process.”
A ProPublica analysis of presidential pardons published Sunday revealed a pattern of racial disparities in pardon awards. The review found that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive pardons as all minorities combined. Congressional influence did not account for the racial disparity.
Of the 54 applicants with congressional support for whom ProPublica was able to determine race, 47 were white, five were black and two were Hispanic.
In the case of Critz, who is white, his family gave Kingston $10,100 in the years before his pardon application in 2000. Since then it has given the congressman an additional $13,050.
Neither Kingston nor any of the lawmakers who received campaign contributions voluntarily disclosed the donations in their letters to the pardons office.
For many members of Congress, a letter to the pardon lawyer is a routine constituent service. Pardons restore the right to own a firearm, sit on a jury or vote. Because felons are often denied professional licenses, a pardon can open the door to a new job or career advancement.
Bush began his presidency determined to prevent political interference in the granting of pardons. He had just witnessed a powerful example of how money and connections could mar the process: President Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated large sums to the Clinton Presidential Library and the Democratic National Committee. Bush decided to rely more on career officials in the Justice Department’s tiny pardons office.