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Before Trump spared Blago, Clinton went to bat for Rosty and Reynolds

In his final weeks in office, President Bill Clinton gave executive clemency to two former Democratic congressmen, Dan Rostenkowski and Mel Reynolds.

President Bill Clinton shares the stage with U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, right, and Hillcrest High School principal Gwen Lee, left, at the Country Club Hills high school in 1994. File Photo.
President Bill Clinton shares the stage with U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, right, and Hillcrest High School principal Gwen Lee, left, at the Country Club Hills high school in 1994. File Photo.
Sun-Times archives.

President Donald Trump is not the first president to take mercy on a disgraced Illinois pol.

In his final weeks in office, President Bill Clinton gave executive clemency to two former Democratic congressmen, Dan Rostenkowski and Mel Reynolds.

Days before Christmas in 2000, Clinton gave a long awaited gift to Rostenkowski, issuing a full and unconditional pardon to the once powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

President Bill Clinton and U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski share lunch in 1993. File Photo.
President Bill Clinton and U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski share lunch in 1993. File Photo.
AP

Rostenkowski had already served his 17 months at the Oxford Correctional Facility in Wisconsin after pleading guilty in 1996 to two counts of mail fraud. But the White House pardon allowed the proud Northwest Side Democrat — who represented the same 5th Congressional District Blagojevich would later serve — a chance to reclaim his reputation.

“I think it’s marvelous that the president thought enough of me,” Rostenkowski told reporters outside his home hours after the pardon.

Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski leaves the old Sun-Times building after taping a segment for FOX News in their studio hours after President Bill Clinton pardoned him in December of 2000. File Photo.
Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski leaves the old Sun-Times building after taping a segment for FOX News in their studio hours after President Bill Clinton pardoned him in December of 2000. File Photo.
Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

And weeks later, in January of 2001, Clinton commuted former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds’ federal sentence for campaign and bank fraud charges, allowing the former South Side and south suburban congressman to serve out the more than two years he still had left of his sentence in a halfway house.

Reynolds was convicted on the federal charges in 1997, two years after he was convicted in state court for having sex with 16-year-old campaign worker.

Holding a news conference at Midway Airport shortly after his release from prison, Reynolds thanked supporters who pushed for his release, singling out the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. James Meeks and Ald. Ed Burke (14th).

Former Rep. Mel Reynolds reacts after arriving at Chicago’s Midway Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001. File Photo.
Former Rep. Mel Reynolds reacts after arriving at Chicago’s Midway Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001. File Photo.
Ted S. Warren/AP

Reynolds vowed to spend a few days “reflecting, refueling and job hunting because I must, once again, become the breadwinner for my family.”

Rostenkowski died in 2010 at the age of 82.

Reynolds made a few unsuccessful attempts at a political comeback, but he wound up in trouble years later. He was convicted of failing to file income taxes in 2018 and sentenced to six months in federal custody.

Former Rep. Rostenkowski talks on a cellular telephone after taping a segment for FOX News in their studios at the Chicago Sun-Times building in 2000. File Photo.
Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

And rather than get another presidential pardon, Reynolds blamed the Trump administration for what he considered unacceptable treatment at the Metropolitan Correction Center in downtown Chicago.

“It is becoming clear to me that the new Trump people at the [federal Bureau of Prisons] have put politics into this now,” Reynolds told a federal judge in a six-page handwritten letter weeks after beginning his sentence.

“Your Honor, nothing that I have done justifies me being treated like a dangerous worthless animal for political reasons, while the BOP says that they are trying to protect me.”