WASHINGTON (AP) -- New York police detective Anthony S. Senft's life changed forever when a bomb set by Puerto Rican separatists exploded, blowing him 15 feet in the air and blinding him in one eye. Now, he's angry that Eric Holder, who played a key role in awarding clemency to the bombers, is in line to be attorney general.
Holder, as President Bill Clinton's deputy attorney general, worked closely with the Justice Department's pardon attorney to raise the possibility of commuting the prison terms. Three years earlier, that pardon attorney's predecessor had recommended against clemency.
In newly disclosed documents, officials expressed concerns about a department report on possible clemency for the prisoners becoming known publicly.
Holder was expected to face aggressive questioning over the clemency and other issues Thursday from Republicans during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. GOP lawmakers have indicated they expect to approve Holder as Barack Obama's pick to run the job. But the hearing promised to be the most contentious so far among Obama's Cabinet choices.
"Everyone is asking why would a man who helped terrorists get out of jail be nominated for a Cabinet position, especially now that our whole world is infected by terrorism?" said Senft, who retired from the police department weeks ago.
Senft suffered hearing damage and other injuries, including a broken hip, when he hit the ground in the 1982 bombing at a federal building in Manhattan. Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN for its Spanish initials, claimed responsibility for that bombing and more than 100 others, which killed six people and injured dozens more.
Among the matters confronting Holder:
--Clinton's pardon, on his last day in office, of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Rich's wife was a major donor to the Democratic Party and to Clinton's library. Holder urged Rich's lawyer to solicit a pardon directly from the White House, bypassing a traditional, lengthier review at the Justice Department that would have included checking with prosecutors. Holder said he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on a pardon.
--His decision against recommending an independent investigation of fundraising by then-Vice President Al Gore. Gore's money-raising phone calls from the White House created a political uproar during the Clinton administration's second term.
--His efforts in 2004 to become a special investigator for the Illinois Gaming Board. The job, under Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, would have paid Holder and his Washington law firm up to $300,000. The board did not hire Holder and the probe was scrapped.
--The government raid in April 2000 that led to the return of a Cuban boy, Elian Gonzales, to his homeland over the objection of many Cuban-Americans in Miami.
Democrats have asked President George Bush's former Homeland Security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, and a former FBI director, Louis Freeh, to testify on behalf of Holder.
Senft said he believes Clinton's decision on the commutations for 16 prisoners was intended to help Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign for the Senate in New York, home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans. At the time, she said she opposed her husband's decision, while adding she understood "the really strong feelings that my friends in the Puerto Rican community have on this issue."
"All the devastation, all the people killed and maimed," Senft said, "and our good president decides to grant them clemency because his wife is running for senator, and Holder helped him do it. It's a horrible travesty, an unjust thing."
Even Democrats criticized Clinton's clemency for the Puerto Ricans. The Senate and House each denounced the action.
Republicans are renewing their objections, anticipating the chance to ask Holder about the case under oath and with cameras running.
"I don't see any justifiable motivation" for the clemency, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said this week on MSNBC.
Among those scheduled to testify at Holder's hearing will be Richard Hahn, a retired FBI agent. He said several of the Puerto Ricans freed by Clinton were co-conspirators in planning FALN crimes, which including bombings, robberies and murders.
"These were not activists walking around with signs, these were violent terrorists," Hahn said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And anyone in our government that cared to learn that could have learned by simply contacting the FBI."
From 1975 to 1988, Hahn investigated FALN crimes. He objected to the clemency, he said, because a number of FALN-related crimes remain unsolved, fugitive co-conspirators never were arrested, prisoners showed no remorse and there was no agreement with the prisoners to cooperate with authorities.
Clinton said in 1999 his clemency decision was influenced by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter. At the time, the government said none of those whose sentences commuted was directly responsible for deaths or injuries. That was disputed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who then led the Judiciary Committee. Republicans complained that under today's sentencing guidelines, the prisoners would have been sentenced to 30 years to life.
In newly disclosed documents, first reported by the Los Angeles Times last week, then-U.S. pardon attorney Roger Adams expressed concerns that the department's recommendation raising the possibility of clemency would become publicly known. "It is particularly important that the proposed report be kept on very close hold," Adams wrote in August 1998 to Kevin Ohlson, who was Holder's chief of staff. "A 'leak' of the proposed report would be disastrous."
Holder was asked by senators in October 1999 whether it was a mistake not to notify bombing victims and their families that President Clinton was considering clemency for the bombers.
"I think we could have done a better job," Holder said.
By PETE YOST
January 15, 2009