Begging Your Pardon, President Obama!

White House turns back on clemency, including reduced sentences

A banker convicted of fraud might not win over the public's heart. But Peter Stanham makes what could be considered a strong case for sympathy.

Stanham moved to the United States in 1972 from Uruguay and settled in the Miami area. He and his wife raised six children there and now have 14 grandchildren. He worked his entire career in the U.S. for Bankest, a Florida-based company. In addition to his career, Stanham assisted hundreds if not thousands of Uruguayan visitors to the U.S. over many years—work that earned him honors from the Uruguayan government.

In 1998, Bankest founded a joint venture with Espirito Santo Bank, and that's where the fraud began. At the time, Stanham was on the board of directors, reporting to two brothers, Eduardo and Hector Orlansky. In the fraud, Bankest presented false invoices to the joint venture, which led ESB to increase its investment in the company. That money was used to finance several bad investments, which grew the debt to $150 million.

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Holder: burned in Clinton-era pardons scandal
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
Holder: burned in Clinton-era pardons scandal

Stanham wasn't directly involved in the fraud, but he knew about it and failed to report it, according to his commutation petition. By the time he was indicted, he had retired and moved to Uruguay, but he agreed to return to the U.S. to face the charges. Five of his co-defendants—including the two main people behind the scheme—pleaded guilty, served their time, and have since been released. But Stanham elected to go to trial. In 2006, after a lengthy trial on charges of conspiracy, bank fraud, and money laundering, he was convicted.

The judge sentenced him to nine years in prison and ordered him along with his co-defendants to repay $164 million. That was actually a significant departure from the sentencing guidelines, which called for a 16- to 20-year sentence. The judge made a point of saying that the evidence showed "overwhelmingly" that Stanham was not involved in the actual fraud and never made a nickel from it. The judge went on to describe Stanham as a "very good man," who led an "exemplary life." A man of fairly modest means, Stanham couldn't hope to pay off his debt, but he did repay some of it.

Ironically, Stanham got a worse sentence than just about everyone but Hector and Eduardo Orlansky, the key figures in the scheme. Moreover, because of his status as a noncitizen (he had a green card but never obtained U.S. citizenship), Stanham couldn't be housed in a minimum-security camp, nor could he take advantage of other programs that would reduce his sentence.

And then it got even worse. He was initially housed at an immigration facility in Miami, where he could see his family. In April 2008, he was abruptly transferred 1,000 miles to a facility in Big Spring, Texas, that is run by a private contractor. The Bureau of Prisons has thus far refused to return Stanham to Miami, which forces his family to take two airplane flights and an hour's ride across Texas to arrive by 5 a.m. just to see him.

"He has spent over three and a half years in conditions more punitive and restrictive than any of his co-defendants, even including the masterminds of the fraud whose sentences are more than twice as long as his," his clemency petition argues. (In all, he has been incarcerated 62 months.)

Stanham was also diagnosed with prostate cancer and currently takes eight medications for various ailments. He has written of his "deep remorse" for his role in the fraud and noted that he got a nine-year sentence for a crime he didn't create, manage, or profit from.

As for supporters, Stanham has many. Writing in 2007, then Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez noted that under his country's laws, Stanham's age alone would have been enough to allow home confinement. "This long prison term seems a severe punishment for an elderly man with no prior criminal record, particularly in light of his many years of public service," Vázquez wrote. Luis Herrera, the Uruguayan president from 1990 to 1995, described Stanham as a "good and decent man."

Such letters might not mean much. But even the man who sentenced him, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan, wrote to Obama's pardon attorney in 2008 to say that he supported a reduction of Stanham's sentence to three years, given his "lack of personal profit motive, health, age, conditions of confinement," and agreement to be deported.

Even the bank, which was the victim of the fraud, took no position either for or against Stanham's deportation.

In part as a result of the Stanham case, Uruguay in 2009 signed an international treaty that would have allowed his transfer to his home country, and then the Uruguayan government immediately made that request.

But the Justice Department rejected the transfer because Stanham still technically owed that $164 million restitution—again, an amount he could never hope to pay, an amount from which he didn't profit. And there it stands. Every month, Stanham's wife makes the long journey to Texas to see him, and son Nicholas follows every other month.

Peter Stanham's habit in prison is to write a letter a week, which he mails to his family. The letter is then retransmitted via e-mail to hundreds of his supporters. In return, he gets about 50 letters a week. "That system has helped him stay sane and in touch," Nicholas Stanham says.

The paralyzed process under Obama in which requests remain ignored does have one perverse advantage.

"Of course it's frustrating," says Nicholas Stanham, "but in some ways, I would rather have no answer than a negative answer."

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