Fred Davis Clark Jr. masterminded a $300 million Ponzi scheme in Clearwater and other cities. He’s a conman and a thief who ruined lives and upended retirement dreams so that he could live a life of luxury. He deserved every year of the 40-year prison sentence he received in 2016. Instead, he walked free earlier this month. President Donald Trump commuted Clark’s sentence to time served, adding the Orlando man to the long history of dubious presidential pardons and sentence reductions. The outrageous injustice reeks of favoritism and privilege and confirms how easily a president can abuse clemency power.
Clark’s vacation rental scheme began in 2004 when he started raising money from 1,400 investors. His Cay Clubs Resorts and Marinas was supposed to turn rundown properties in Florida, Las Vegas and the Caribbean into luxury resorts that would provide reliable rental and other income. But Clark and his business partners were using money from new investors to pay earlier ones. Along the way, Clark extracted $22 million from Cay Clubs operations for his personal use, investigators found. Clark’s fraud “cost me my retirement, cost me my life savings, cost me all the sacrifices I made in 30 years of traveling the road to support my family,’' one victim said at Clark’s sentencing.
Clark remains a felon subject to five years of supervised release, but that’s a relative vacation compared to prison time. Driven by greed, Clark knowingly deceived hundreds of people. He knew it was wrong but kept doing it anyway — over several years. In the end, Trump decided that “the safety of the community will not be compromised if he is released.” By that flimsy standard, the president could release a huge swath of federal prisoners who are unlikely to commit another crime. Instead, Trump chose to release a swindler who perpetrated an egregious financial crime. Clark’s main partner wasn’t so lucky — he still faces a long prison sentence.
Clark’s sordid tale was hardly what the country’s founders had in mind when they debated giving presidents the power to pardon, which includes commuting sentences. Alexander Hamilton and other leaders of his day agreed that presidential pardons could help restore peace in times of rebellion. Indeed, George Washington pardoned two men in 1795 who planned the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising in Pennsylvania against a federal tax on alcohol.
Pardons are a needed check on unfair or heavy-handed prosecutions. They also right historical wrongs or undo unjust sentences. Trump, and to a much greater extent Barack Obama, used the power to release non-violent drug offenders serving unreasonably long prison terms.
Presidents also use pardons to help heal a battered country. After the Civil War, Andrew Johnson granted immunity to many Confederate soldiers, though he went too far in pardoning Confederate leaders, including some who went on to design the Jim Crow laws that formalized racial segregation and anti-Black racism primarily in southern states. Jimmy Carter granted unconditional pardons to most Americans who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. And in perhaps the nation’s best-known pardon, Gerald Ford wrote that “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost” if prosecutors pursued charges against his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon.
Those pardons were controversial and left some opponents feeling unsatisfied. But Clark’s case falls into another, much shabbier category — the wealthy and privileged who have the connections and resources to secure presidential favor. Clark joins the likes of Marc Rich, the billionaire fugitive exonerated by Bill Clinton (who also pardoned his half-brother, Roger Clinton, for a cocaine-related drug conviction), and Charles Kushner, the real estate developer convicted of tax fraud whom Trump pardoned last month. Kushner happens to be the father-in-law of Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka. Trump even pardoned Steve Bannon, his former political adviser accused of diverting about $1 million from Trump’s own supporters in a scheme to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
The power to pardon works best in the hands of presidents who possess a sense of honor and fairness, who believe in the hallmarks of justice and adhere to a strong moral compass. Without those bedrock values, more crooks and grifters like Fred Davis Clark will get off easy.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, editorial writers John Hill and Jim Verhulst, and Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news