A Pardon, a Presidential Library, a Big Donation

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The dedication of the George Bush Presidential Library in 1997

The George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, reveals its most generous patrons on a gray marble wall in the foyer. When the center, located at Texas A&M University, was being erected, money flowed in from as far away as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, places that had good reason to thank the 40th president of the United States. But for one donor of at least $100,000 — Texas oilman Edwin L. Cox, Sr. — gratitude may have been closer to home.

Just before leaving office in January 1993, Bush pardoned Cox's son Edwin L. Cox Jr. The scion of one of Texas' richest families, Cox Jr. had pleaded guilty in 1988 to bank fraud by falsifying collateral on $78 million in loans. He quit as director of a Dallas bank, spent six months in prison and paid $250,000 in fines. (Those who have served their time often seek pardons because felony convictions prevent them from obtaining professional licenses and voting.)

Like several controversial pardons by President Clinton, the Cox clemency featured last-minute maneuvering at the Justice Department and lobbying by influential allies. Former Texas governor Bill Clements called Bush's chief of staff, James A. Baker III, asking if the President would consider a pardon for Cox. Baker jotted a note to the White House counsel on Nov. 24, 1992 — copied to Bush — passing along Clements' inquiry and referring to the elder Cox as "a longtime supporter of the President's."

Eleven months after the pardon, Cox lived up to his billing with a pledge to the library. His name is etched in gold as a "benefactor," those whose donations amount to between $100,000 to $250,000. He also serves as a library trustee. (The precise size of the donation remains unknown because the Bush library, while listing its patrons, has declined to release the amounts they gave.) The Cox family's generosity began years earlier with at least $35,000 in contributions to Bush and GOP campaigns. (The total may have been higher because soft money did not have to be reported at that time.) And the family kept on giving after Bush left office, with $125,000 going to GOP campaign committees in 1995 and about $30,000 to gubernatorial and presidential races of today's White House occupant, George W. Bush.

Cox did not return repeated calls to his Dallas office. A women who identified herself as an assistant said his gift to Bush's library had nothing to do with the pardon. He gave, she said, because "President Bush is a longtime friend."

Democrats might find some solace in the Cox pardon because of similarities to the recent Clinton binge. Bush granted it in his final few days. As in the Marc Rich case, it was supported by a longtime donor who gave to the presidential library. And although Cox's clemency was vetted by the Justice Department — unlike many granted by Clinton — it was rushed through at the last minute, an official with the former Bush administration told TIME.com.

The U.S. attorney in Cox's matter, Marvin Collins, did not criticize the pardon with the same vehemence as federal prosecutors did in Clinton's case. Indeed, he called Cox a good candidate for an eventual pardon. But Collins did question the timing. The Justice Department usually waits five years after a convict finishes his sentence before recommending a pardon. At the time the pardon was given, Collins called it "premature" because the five years had not yet elapsed.

But any likeness to Clinton's acts of clemency is limited. The bank fraud for which Cox pleaded guilty is not seen as heinous as the cocaine-dealing conviction of Carlos Vignali, whose prison term was commuted by Clinton and who was also the son of a generous donor. Unlike the fugitive Rich, Cox acknowledged his wrongdoing and served time for it. Despite a hurried review by the Justice Department, Bush's team did not bypass it as Clinton's often did. No one politically linked to Bush is known to have been paid to pursue the Cox clemency. And Bush did not solicit funds for his $83 million library, including Cox's, until he left office.

C. Boyden Gray, Bush's White House counsel during the period in question, said he can't recall the case or the note sent by Baker in November 1992. But he said the reference to Cox as a "longtime supporter" would not have influenced the decision. "It was boilerplate to put it in," he told TIME. (Baker did not return calls for comment.) Gray said such inquiries were routinely sent to the Justice Department's pardon attorney. He did not recall whether Justice recommended Cox's pardon. But nearly every pardon granted by Bush had its support, he said.

Gray saw no problem with Cox's library contribution because it was made after the pardon. By contrast, Rich's ex-wife gave $450,000 to Clinton's project before he pardoned her ex-husband. "What's semi-toxic for Clinton was raising money for the library while he was still in office and letting people know, By the way, we're open for pardons, too," said Gray. "We never solicited Mr. Cox's application."