Kelly Lee went to Las Vegas in June to get married. She gambled about 30 bucks, but didn't win anything.
"I'm just not a big gambler," Lee says. "I think it's an absolute waste of money."
She didn't hit a big jackpot in Vegas, but last year she collected what she considers her life's biggest prize: a pardon from Gov. Ted Kulongoski for a 1989 meth conviction.
Lee is one of just six people in Oregon to receive such a prize in the past 4 1/2 years. With his power to grant clemency, the governor gave those Select Six something only he can offer in this state—a legal reprieve from the past.
Yet unless you were one of Lee's friends or neighbors on her street in Springfield, you probably didn't hear about her hitting the pardon jackpot. Unlike the deluge of news surrounding President George W. Bush's commutation last month of Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence, Kulongoski's pardons are a quiet affair involving a small number of people.
The pittance of pardons means only a lucky few have hit the jackpot. Only six out of 301—just 2 percent—have gotten a pardon. They had a better chance of getting into Harvard or Yale. But according to the governor's general counsel, David Reese, the process is as methodical as its lucky recipients are spare.
"The stars all really have to be aligned for your [pardon] application to move forward," says Reese, who researches and presents the governor with a recommendation on each pardon application.
It's not what you might think. Unlike in the movies, there are no calls at 11:59 from Death Row inmates seeking reprieve from the electric chair. No, the governor—who has served as Oregon's attorney general and was on the state's Supreme Court from 1997 to 2001—doesn't wait up at night, wringing his hands over the murderers, rapists and child molesters in state prisons.
Yet even a self-described "crime-fighting advocate" such as Republican Kevin Mannix wonders why Kulongoski offers such long odds for other pardon applicants.
"I don't think the governor exercises his pardoning power as much as he might," says Mannix, Kulongoski's opponent in 2002 and the main sponsor of 1994's Measure 11, which instituted mandatory sentencing for violent offenders.
Mannix has touted the governor's pardon as Measure 11's escape valve, counterbalancing the law's removal of judges' sentencing discretion. "With the tougher sentences of Measure 11," he told WW in 1999, "I always said that one of the offshoots would be that the governor, from time to time, would need to exercise clemency power."
Mannix is partially right about the governor's caution when Kulongoski's numbers are compared with his predecessors'. In his eight years in office, Democrat John Kitzhaber was less lenient, granting only four of 528 applications—less than 1 percent. But Democrat Barbara Roberts, in her single four-year term, gave pardons to 16 out of 177 applicants—over 8 percent...four times the rate of Kulongoski.
"I have not come to regret any of those pardons," Roberts told WW. "Many people believe in a second chance."
Kulongoski, says his good friend Bob Stoll, is also a believer.
"He has very deep religious and spiritual values," says Stoll, a successful trial lawyer who's been Kulongoski's friend for more than 30 years. "He does believe in redemption very much."
The governor's office referred all questions about pardons to Reese, who says Kulongoski takes his role as pardoner seriously. "If he decides to grant [a pardon], it's been the product of a lot of thought and a conversation that he's had with the applicant," Reese says. "He wants them to understand the heavy burden that they carry from that day forward because they have gotten this kind of relief from the governor and because he's taken a risk to do it."
But how far does one have to go to be redeemed? A majority of the pardons Kulongoski has given are, well, givens: Four of the six are immigrant women who have lived in the state 20-plus years. They are people who, after a relatively minor infraction of the law, faced the threat of deportation to their native countries—or, if traveling abroad to visit family, the likelihood they would not be allowed back into the country each had called home for most of their lives (see sidebar, page 29).
The other two pardons—the only ones he's granted to native Oregonians—reflect more of a jackpotlike randomness in the whole pardoning process.
One of the lucky winners, Lee, was newly divorced and trying to care for her daughter and dying 92-year-old grandmother. Slowly becoming buried in debt, she couldn't secure the higher-paying legal jobs she was trained for due to her 15-year-old conviction.
The other winner, the only man among the six, was blessed with powerful friends when he wanted to clear a 1986 coke conviction. He wasn't drowning in promissory notes, threatened with extraction from the place he calls home, or even told he couldn't visit his family because he wouldn't be allowed to come back. He just wanted video poker.
After 10 years of wrangling with Oregon Lottery directors, with lawyers and with the court, Bob Dahl thought he'd hit a brick wall with his 17-year-old drug conviction. He assumed he needed a pardon to get video poker into his bar.
Dahl—the first person Kulongoski pardoned in 2003, six months after taking office—owns Lloyd's of Bandon, a 54-year-old bar in the heart of old-town Bandon on the southern Oregon coast. Without clearing the felony from his record, Dahl worried he couldn't get the profitable video poker machines for his popular bar.
This preoccupation with financial endeavors contrasted with Dahl's previous life when all he wanted to do was party.
Reared in Bandon, the 56-year-old Dahl, mustached with a bit of a middle-aged belly, says he started boozing and getting stoned in the small coastal town even before graduating from Bandon High School in 1968. He joined the Army, went to Germany and came home in 1972.
Despite being a heavy drinker, Dahl always worked, mainly in construction, while his father, Melvin, owned Lloyd's of Bandon. Ready for retirement in the late 1970s, his dad had papers written up for a transfer of ownership to Bob. The deal, his dad said, depended on his son cleaning up. Dahl refused, and his dad tore up the contract.
"He said, 'You know, if you're going to own this place, you cannot be one of your own best customers,'" Dahl recalls.
Years passed, sideburns gave way to tidy haircuts, disco to new wave, and Dahl kept the good times rolling. At age 29, he got his first driving-under-the-influence conviction in 1980. He avoided jail time with diversion—a legal promise to the court and the cops he would never drink and drive again.
Six years later, he was having a drink in Lloyd's when a couple of women friends walked in the bar. They had partied with Dahl before and asked him if he knew where to score some coke. He did, and made a phone call.
After he hooked them up, one of the ladies wanted to show her gratitude by sharing a line.
"We got busted in the parking lot," Dahl recalled. He was charged and convicted on June 7, 1986, of possession and delivery, but escaped jail time and received probation. Within a year, Dahl violated probation on April 14, 1987, by having coke in his system during a mandatory urinalysis. He got 38 days in the Coos County jail before getting released to a treatment program for a few weeks in North Bend. Treatment didn't stick.
A year later, in spring 1988, Dahl got another DUII in Redding, Calif., where he was helping a friend build a house. He was sentenced to four days in jail. A few months after that second DUII, he went on a weekend fishing trip in August 1988.
"We went down there fishing on the Rogue River, and I just got drunker than a pig," Dahl says. "Went up to Agnes and continued to get drunk and then drove home drunk the next day on Sunday. I got home and passed out."
Thirty-eight years old, with two DUIIs, a probation violation and counts of possession and delivery of a controlled substance on his record, Dahl called it quits and entered rehab. This time, treatment stuck.
By March 1989, barely six months later, Dahl had gotten the bar back and begun the process to get his Oregon Liquor Control Commission licensing, a difficult endeavor considering his previous debauchery.
"They actually rewrote some service permit applications based on my case," Dahl says now of the OLCC, which eventually gave him a license. "It made it so just because you made a mistake once, you weren't done forever."
The OLCC has no record of this. But later records concerning Lloyd's indicate Dahl got a restricted OLCC permit that required more frequent monitoring.
Dahl was at the helm of the bar, which can cram in 250 revelers on a good night. Dahl says he'd put in 100-hour workweeks, covering every position—bartender, waiter, cook.
In 1992, the Oregon Lottery began offering video poker. Dahl wanted video poker for the then-35 percent cut it provided bar owners (since lowered in 2005 to a sliding scale that pays out a 12 percent to 29 percent cut for retailers). Dahl had been longing for the games he expected would bring his business an additional $75,000 to a $100,000 a year in straight profit, not including what the extra customers would spend on food and drink.
Problem was, the Oregon Lottery wouldn't let him have the video poker machines when he first applied, because of his drug conviction. In 1992, rules left it to the lottery director's discretion who could get video poker, never mentioning wait times or severity of crimes.
After failed talks with the Lottery, and the impossibility of a court expungement, Dahl turned to the governor's office for a pardon.
In 2002, he enlisted some friends as his three personal references on his pardon application to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. (See Dahl's Executive Clemency Application here.) He didn't get a pardon. At least, not from Kitzhaber.
But one of the friends was a big name—Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a pal since Bradbury moved from Massachusetts in 1971.
"We had mutual friends," says Dahl, who's divorced with two daughters and two granddaughters. "He and his first girlfriend...had a little restaurant here in town, out on the bluff. A little fish-and-chips joint. I used to go out there and eat some." (Bradbury opened Two Seasons with his first wife, Betsy Harrison, the mother of his two daughters.)
"I was pleased that Bob Dahl got the pardon," says Bradbury, who calls Dahl a "friendly acquaintance." Bradbury is "not sure, but pretty sure" that he never discussed Dahl's pardon with Kulongoski "I hoped [my reference] would help him some."
Dahl also enlisted Dr. Gregory Aitchison, a Bandon physician who served on the Lottery Commission from May 1992 to January 1998. And Dahl's attorney, Fred Carleton, a prominent lawyer in Coos County, got county District Attorney Paul Burgett to send a letter of support to Kulongoski. It was the first time in 23 years Burgett had endorsed a pardon.
Burgett says now that he can't remember Dahl, but generally he doesn't "agree with or think kindly of gubernatorial pardons."
Dahl ended up getting a meeting with Kulongoski and Reese on June 6, 2003.
"I started crying," Dahl recalls when Kulongoski signed his pardon. "My eyes just welled up.... Of course, I danced right out of the office."
Reese wouldn't comment specifically about why Dahl got the pardon, but says anyone who gets a pardon deserves it.
The irony is that the rules had changed so that Dahl could have applied for the machines in 2002, 15 years after his 1987 drug probation violation—and 14 months before his pardon. That's because the rule in 2002 required video poker applicants to wait 15 years since their last drug conviction.
Dahl says he hadn't spoken with any lottery official since at least 1994 and didn't think re-applying to the Lottery was an option.
Carleton says he also was unaware of the rules change but says clearing his client's record was a good move as insurance against any future rule changes.
With his record as clean as his lifestyle, and his coffers slowly filling with Lottery lucre, Dahl has halved his average workweek to 50 or so hours. He plays golf four to six days a week, mostly at the Coos Country Club, where members' dues in the summer run $160 a month. He also occasionally plays at the internationally renowned Bandon Dunes, where greens fees are $250. As for the restaurant, Dahl just put it up for sale for $1 million.
Dahl is confident that his references "didn't hurt," but resists the idea that strings were pulled in his favor.
As for any favoritism because of Dahl's connections, Reese says Bradbury and Aitchison were not factors in Dahl's pardon.
A check of elections records showed no donations to Bradbury by Dahl.
Looking back on what's happened to Dahl, Reese says he doesn't "have any opinion or take on what Mr. Dahl's doing now."
Dahl thinks his own past wrongs, and their subsequent absolution, should not only be embraced but aired.
"I've never hidden from people," says Dahl. "I've never been one of these people who didn't want people to know I had a problem. I've always been upfront with it. Me being upfront with it may help somebody else down the road."
Kulongoski's most recent pardon came on March 27, 2006. The winner was Kelly Sue Lee, a 42-year-old woman who lives in a tranquil Springfield neighborhood with her second husband and his three children, ages 9 to 15.
Lee is tan with a spontaneous, sincere smile. Usually bespectacled, wearing jean shorts with a white top, she looks like your average American summertime mom.
But in the 1980s, Lee liked crank. She liked to sell it, and she liked to snort it. She had used methamphetamine, now more commonly called meth, for six years and says she sold it out of her home, "just enough to buy the groceries, pay the utilities." She sold quarter-grams and dime bags ($10 worth) to her friends, prepackaged in bindles, ready for quick service.
Her youth had been hard, according to her pardon application. By the age of 6, Lee's parents had abandoned her and her younger sister, Jonnie, and they both moved in and out of foster homes. For the next six years, until Lee was 12, her foster dad sexually and physically abused both children until Lee "finally got the courage to report the abuse," according to her pardon application.
She and her sister began shuttling between families in the Willamette Valley before settling in Springfield, when Lee was 16. Their foster mom introduced her to meth. Intermittently over the next six years, Lee used meth, saying she stopped only for her two pregnancies.
She began selling when she was 22. A year later, Lee was busted selling a dime bag to a regular customer. Lee smelled a rat, telling him on his way out, "Well, just don't be bringing the police back with you."
Three days later, on a bright spring morning in 1989, Kelly shuffled her 6-year-old son, Johnny, onto the school bus and had just gotten back to the house with her 3-year-old daughter, Cassandra, when the police used a battering ram on her unlocked door.
She was convicted of unlawful delivery but got only four years' probation and a fine of $50.
A year after her arrest, still running with the same old crowd, she used ("to prove I wasn't a rat") and somebody turned her in to her probation officer. She got booked with possession, spent four days in jail and performed road-crew duty for two weeks.
Finally, she says, she straightened up—and began looking for meaningful work.
After a spate of low-paying jobs—mills, an "absolutely disgusting" chicken plant and Safeway—Lee got a job with US West, then the local phone company. When US West's Eugene office closed in April 1994, Lee went to Lane Community College through the Dislocated Worker Program. She came out in 1996 with a 3.9 GPA, trained as a legal assistant.
But her 7-year-old drug conviction acted as a sort of glass ceiling. The delivery conviction in 1989 meant she couldn't find steady work as a legal assistant.
In 2003, she divorced her husband. Her son moved out and got married. Single and tending to her then-17-year-old daughter and 92-year-old grandmother, Lee fell into debt.
She declared bankruptcy and, with the help of attorney Greg Veralrud, applied to Kulongoski for a pardon in February 2004. After six months, her application expired. She immediately applied again, but that too also expired without comment from Kulongoski. (See Long's Executive Clemency Application here.)
Reese says her application lapsed a few times before the governor was ready to act on it.
Undaunted, Lee believed the absence of an outright denial was a good enough sign to keep up the unrelenting paperwork.
"I knew it would be by the grace of God if it went through," Lee says of her doubt that Kulongoski would bother with her application. "I kind of thought it would be denied, and I was just hoping it would go through."
Determination paid off when an aide from the governor unexpectedly called her in March 2006.
Within a week, she briefly met with Kulongoski in Salem. She and Kulongoski—who, she says, was "not clinical or governmentlike at all"—went over her past and her reasons for seeking the pardon.
The governor, reared in Missouri orphanages, asked about Lee's days in foster care. After 15 minutes, Lee walked out with a pardon. A few days later, the actual document, stamped with the gold seal of Oregon, came in the mail. (See Long's document granting her pardon here.)
"The governor had a talk with me," Lee says. "He said, 'Not many people get a chance to rewrite their history.' But he could rewrite mine. He very sincerely asked me to never let him regret signing my pardon."
Within a month, she began working for the Lane County tax assessment office, making $27,000 a year with benefits, a position she "previously had been only able to dream about" because of her conviction. (She does not have to declare her past conviction if asked on an application.)
And she got remarried, this time to a Eugene firefighter named Stace Lee, who met her at a local gym during a bodybuilding contest they were both competing in.
Lee keeps her pardon framed on her bedroom wall, near the TV where she can look at it every day.
"It's a hideous, hideous thing to have a hold of you," Lee says of meth. "[As a drug addict,] I don't know if you can really look at your life and say, 'You know what? This is not really working. I need to straighten up.' Somehow it's the man trying to keep you down or whatever. I think that our system is out there to try and save some of these people from themselves. I have no doubt that I could have ended up straight down that same road, where I could be dead."
Kulongoski's first pardon—of Dahl, six months into the governor's term—seemed to indicate he would pardon people who cleaned up their acts. His last pardon—of Lee, more than a year ago—shows how rarely the governor actually breaks out his magic pen.
Margaret Colgate Love, who served as the U.S. Justice Department's pardon attorney under both the first President Bush and President Clinton, says Dahl's case "sounds like a good case for a pardon, and it could be an accident that he's so well-connected. If the governor pardoned more, people might have forgiven his connections as accidental."
The governor's counsel, Reese, says it's a misread to believe that Kulongoski's early pardon of Dahl would forecast a more lenient pardon approach.
"Most applications don't need more than a read-through," Reese says. "The ones that are relatively easy don't warrant a lot of conversation."
But what about when the system fails? When a reformed drug addict, recognized as an upstanding citizen, is being held back by something he's already renounced?
After all, Kulongoski is only approving 2 percent of the pardon applications, as compared with ex-Gov. Barbara Roberts' rate of 8 percent.
"There is some controversy in doing it, even if it is the right thing to do," says Roberts of pardoning people. "Some people would like to avoid that controversy."
WW's review of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's pardon record finds rejected applications of at least eight people whose case histories share some similar characteristics with Kelly Lee's.
Their cases appear similar because the crimes were drug-related and nonviolent, and were committed more than 10 years ago. And each person seems to have gone on to make something of themselves.
One of them is Danny Ray Holcombe, who was busted in 1988 on a marijuana manufacture and delivery charge in Washington County. Holcombe, 60, served one year in the Oregon State Penitentiary but says he has since turned his life around. He now runs his own business, researching agricultural products for organic farmers in the Klamath Valley.
However, with a Class A felony on his record, Holcombe can't get a passport that would allow him to shop his services to lucrative overseas markets, like China.
"It wasn't just the money, it was the lost opportunity to do things," says Holcombe, who applied to Kulongoski for a pardon in 2006.
Holcombe's application was denied without explanation.
"All the letter said was, 'Sorry we are not going to do it at this time,'" said Holcombe, who admitted to being in trouble before as a juvenile in another state.
Questions about the governor's pardon record were referred to Kulongoski's general counsel, David Reese, who declined comment on individual pardon cases.
Holcombe is philosophical about being denied clemency and is unsure whether he'll apply again.
"If the governor felt I didn't deserve a pardon," Holcombe says, "I didn't deserve a pardon." —Paul Leonard
Four of the six people whom Gov. Ted Kulongoski has pardoned were women immigrants facing deportation.
The women's immigration status differs—from naturalized U.S. citizen to permanent resident—but their pardon stories are similar. Each had built a life in Oregon, complete with family, children and job, when they faced deportation proceedings years after their original convictions.
In 1991, Leticia Morales was 24, homeless and spoke no English when she accepted an offer to stay at a stranger's house fresh after arriving in Eugene from Mexico. The trouble started when her hosts got a delivery of cocaine.
"The woman who rented the residence was pregnant and did not get around easily," Morales wrote in her pardon application. "I offered to go outside and retrieve the drugs for her."
Morales retrieved them from an undercover cop and was arrested. She received probation. Then, in 2001, Morales was mistakenly arrested and charged with possession and intent to deliver meth until her attorney got a video of the drug deal that showed Morales wasn't involved.
But even though the charges were dismissed, immigration began deportation proceedings against her and her three daughters based on the 1991 conviction. Kulongoski pardoned her on Nov. 6, 2003.
Kari Rein, a 45-year-old native Norwegian, was detained at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for three weeks in 2003 on her way back to Oregon from Norway.
Deportation proceedings began against her after authorities realized she had a 10-year-old drug conviction, when she and her husband were busted with six pot plants. Rein's case stirred The Oregonian's editorial page to implore Kulongoski to keep "this Oregonian wife and mother in Oregon." On May 24, 2004, Kulongoski pardoned her.
Ana Carillo-Tecún, 31, fled Guatemala to Northeast Portland with her family at the age of 6.
In 1991, at age 20, she was arrested after trying to steal some clothes from Meier & Frank and some sausages and a video of The Usual Suspects from Cub Foods in Tigard, among other items totaling about $75. When immigration officials began efforts to deport her, they called the attempted thefts "crimes of moral turpitude."
Carillo-Tecún turned to the pardon process, saying in her application that she had endured years of sexual abuse from family members before the attempted thefts. On July 22, 2004, Kulongoski pardoned her.
Felicity Elworthy had wanted to go home to Wales to visit her elderly parents, ever since she was busted in 1987 for growing pot. But, she knew, if she went she would not be allowed to come back, thanks to that conviction.
When the cops busted down her door in the Illinois Valley near Cave Junction, they counted over 100 plants.
Elworthy, 56, was first denied a pardon by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber because she wasn't faced with immediate deportation. Her parents, both in their 80s, were ailing, so she applied again in June 2003, this time to Kulongoski. That application was allowed to lapse, but almost 50 letters of support poured into the governor's office from friends and family of "Fliss." On the third try, Kulongoski pardoned her on Aug. 5, 2004. —Nicholas Deshais
Factors that Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his general counsel David Reese considers in assessing a pardon application are risk to public safety, the nature of the crime, the reason for clemency, criminal history, the amount of time passed since the crime, evidence of rehabilitation, the local district attorney's opinion, consideration of the benefit of further punishment, and the benefit to society.
If the governor doesn't act on a pardon application, the application expires after six months, though applicants may reapply.
Pardon applications require applicants to include their name, the crime and the reason why the pardon is being sought. Employment history and debts must be recorded, as well as any community service. At least three personal references must be included.
In Washington, former Gov. Gary Locke pardoned 56 people during his tenure between 1997 and 2005. Current Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has pardoned 11 people in her 2 1/2 years in office. Washington doesn't have statistics for how many applications each governor received.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in office just under four years, has pardoned four people out of what his press office estimates are thousands of applicants.
Technically, Oregon courts cannot "expunge" a person's record. Expungement is a legal term meaning that a criminal record is sealed. Legally speaking, the court may only "set aside" a person's conviction; the conviction no longer has bearing on that person's life but isn't completely erased.
On top of pardons, Kulongoski has also commuted two sentences, both affected by Measure 11 for crimes committed by minors:
David Gene Thomas robbed a corner grocery when he was 17. He was incarcerated until Kulongoski commuted his sentence June 3, 2005, two days before his 25th birthday.
Samihe Damian Zarif was convicted of second-degree robbery at age 15. Kulongoski commuted his sentence Oct. 10, 2003, five months before his 70-month sentence was to end, when Zarif was 20.