Jan 17, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Convicts turn to D.C. fixers for Trump pardons

Matt Schlapp is seen interviewing Jared Kushner at the 2020 CPAC meeting.
Trump confidante Matt Schlapp interviews Jared Kushner last February. Schlapp is seeking a pardon for a biotech executive. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

A flood of convicted criminals has retained lobbyists since November’s presidential election to press President Trump for pardons or commutations before he leaves office.

What we're hearing: Among them is Nickie Lum Davis, a Hawaii woman who pleaded guilty last year to abetting an illicit foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of fugitive Malaysian businessman Jho Low. Trump confidante Matt Schlapp also is seeking a pardon for a former biopharmaceutical executive convicted of fraud less than two months ago.

Why it matters: With little in the way of remaining political capital, nullifying or curtailing sentences is one of the few official actions Trump still has at his disposal. And influence industry professionals have worked to ingratiate themselves with him to win clemency for paying clients.

What’s happening: Since November, at least 10 federal criminals have retained lobbyists whose description of their work in disclosure records included “pardon,” “commutation” or “clemency.”

  • That’s compared to five in the waning days of the Obama administration and four during George W. Bush’s lame-duck period.
  • Campaigns for pardons and commutations generally happen through less official channels, not by way of registered lobbyists.
  • The substantial increase in lobbying registrations shows how those seeking presidential action are turning to people who can navigate the Trump administration.
  • Schlapp disclosed his work on Friday. It was first reported publicly Sunday by the New York Times.

Davis, the Hawaii woman, admitted to conspiring with former high-dollar GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy to circumvent the Foreign Agents Registration Act, in an effort to curb a Justice Department investigation into Low. Broidy also pleaded guilty to a charge related to the scheme.

  • Davis has retained Potomac International Partners to push for a grant of clemency. One of the lobbyists on the account is Mark Cowan, who was a member of Trump’s transition team.

Between the lines: According to one source involved in recent commutation advocacy efforts, the White House has been the overwhelming focus of the work. Less attention had been paid to the Justice Department, the official channel used during past administrations.

  • The source said his strategy has entailed building coalitions of supportive individuals to promote his clients’ positions and stacking those coalitions with as many Trump allies and supporters as possible to win the president’s attention and favor.
  • The source spoke to Axios on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his efforts.

Among the most prolific Trump-era clemency lobbyists is Brett Tolman, a Salt Lake City attorney who advised the White House on the passage of the First Step Act in 2018.

  • Since last year, Tolman has registered to represent eight clients seeking clemency, including two since the election in November.
  • One of his clients, Sholam Weiss, was sentenced in 2000 to 845 years in prison on charges of racketeering and wire fraud. A website devoted to pressing for his release features letters of support from former Trump attorneys Jay Sekulow and Alan Dershowitz.

Tolman did not respond to inquiries, but he defended his paid lobbying work in a tweet Friday:

  • “I’ve represented many to get clemency. Some have been paying clients, many have been pro-Bono. I’m proud of my team’s clemency work and [criminal justice reform] efforts.”
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