Inmate Phillip Emmert's pen-pal friendship spurred an effort to persuade President Bush to commute his sentence, a rare executive act.

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WASHINGTON — Karen Orehowsky decided to join the Beltway lobbying crowd not long after receiving a phone call from her mother in Iowa. Her mother told her she had a new pen pal, a former drug dealer named Phillip Emmert who was serving a 27-year sentence in federal prison.

Orehowsky was alarmed to hear her 62-year-old mom was corresponding with an inmate. But her mother assured her that Emmert had reformed and did not deserve his long sentence. She said her rural church had begun writing letters to him to give him hope and support, and suggested her daughter do the same.

Orehowsky was skeptical. “Nobody in this great country gets 27 years with no possibility of parole as a nonviolent, first offender,” she said.

But after research, she, too, came to believe Emmert had been the victim of an unjust sentence — and misfortune. He had, she learned, become a model prisoner.

Orehowsky decided she would do more than write letters: She would lobby the Justice Department to persuade President Bush to commute Emmert’s sentence.

As an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee in Washington, she knew people inside the federal bureaucracy. She talked up the case at parties attended by administration officials. She sought advice from government lawyers who had firsthand knowledge of the clemency process.

Early on, a former Justice Department official warned her she was taking on a nearly hopeless task. Orehowsky scribbled the exact words — “You have no reasonable chance of success” — on a piece of paper and pinned it to a wall above her desk at work.

The Bush administration’s record for granting clemency was not encouraging. In 2002, when Orehowsky embarked on her task, Bush had not commuted a sentence.

He since has taken action in four cases, the most prominent being that of former vice-presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case. Bush also has granted full pardons to more than 100 people, but only after they had served their time.

Cases such as Libby’s and that of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier pardoned by President Clinton in 2001, have raised questions about the fairness of presidential pardons and clemency because they involved the affluent and politically connected.

More routinely, hundreds of the unconnected apply for clemency every year with little or no guidance or hope. Their petitions are filed with the 12-person Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department, whose deliberations and recommendations never are made public. Applicants often wait years for a response.

Even some prominent conservative jurists have come to believe clemency is a tool of the justice system that is not used enough.

“The pardon process, of late, seems to have been drained of its moral force,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said to the American Bar Association in 2003 in a speech calling on lawyers to file more petitions. While defendants in many cases have not served their full sentences, they have served long enough, Kennedy said.

In Libby’s case, Bush declared the 30-month sentence “excessive,” even though it was at the low end of the range of federal guidelines. He also said Libby was a first-time offender and his family had suffered from his conviction.

Phillip Emmert grew up in rural Arkansas, one of seven children. He was 5 when his father left home; his mother worked as a waitress to support the family. That left the kids to raise themselves.

He started using drugs at 13. Later, when he was convicted of breaking into a car and stealing a watch and sunglasses, a judge offered him the chance to avoid prison by joining the Army.

After his discharge, he got married, had a daughter — and got hooked on methamphetamine.

The road to prison

In 1992, he was implicated in a conspiracy to distribute more than 25 pounds of meth with a group of motorcycle friends. Emmert claimed he was in on the deal simply to support his habit. Under the law, however, he was held responsible for the entire stockpile of drugs. At 36, he was sentenced to 324 months — 27 years — even though he was a first-time drug offender. The ringleader received life.

Initially, Emmert had problems as a prisoner. Eighteen months into his sentence he was busted for drinking alcohol and sent to an isolated unit known as “the hole.”

That’s where he got the news that his wife and daughter had been in a car accident. His wife, Dixie, was left a paraplegic. His daughter was 8.

He said the accident motivated him to turn his life around. He prayed and began reading the Bible. “Change didn’t happen overnight,” he said, “but change did come.”

Over the ensuing decade, he learned a trade: servicing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. He completed a ministerial-studies program endorsed by the Assembly of God Church, and became qualified to be a licensed pastor. He served as a hospice volunteer and mental-health companion, attending to terminally ill inmates and counseling suicidal prisoners.

“I met many inmates who ‘found God’ but immediately lost him when it became evident that God was not going to get them out of prison,” said Robert Williams, an inmate who served time with Emmert. “But Phillip was different.”

In 1996, Emmert caught a break. After Congress had modified sentencing guidelines, the judge shaved five years off his prison time, leaving him with 18 more years to serve.

Constant lobbying

The team that took up his cause did not look to be a lobbying juggernaut.

There was a small-town church, First Assembly of God in Washington, Iowa, whose members included farmers, plumbers and electricians but “not a single professional among them,” Orehowsky said. Her credentials consisted of running an office at the EPA that regulates auto emissions.

As a first step, Orehowsky found a major Washington law firm willing to take on Emmert’s case as a public service. The firm, Crowell & Moring, filed a brief with the Justice Department. But the firm’s attorneys found the assignment frustrating because communications were so one-sided.

“It is a black hole,” said Thomas Means, one of the lawyers involved. “They don’t tell you anything at the pardon office. You can’t get anything out of them.”

Means and Orehowsky stepped up the offensive. “You take every opportunity to tell the story to somebody. You never know who might get through,” Means said.

Orehowsky began working the bureaucracy. She found out her boss at EPA once worked in the auto industry with Andrew Card, Bush’s first chief of staff. The boss agreed to write a letter to Card about Emmert.

“Every time I went to a dinner party, every time I met someone who said, ‘Oh, I work for the Justice Department,’ they got my [Emmert] story,” Orehowsky said.

She turned friends — and friends of friends — into lobbying partners. When one played a round of golf with a cousin of the president, she made sure he took along a “one-pager” on Emmert.

She had Pastor James Cluney, of First Assembly of God in Iowa, write to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, a member of the same denomination, which had given Emmert his divinity papers. Ashcroft wrote a letter of support but it was unclear whether he sent it to the Justice Department.

A formal clemency petition had been filed in February 2004 and hopes ebbed and flowed for nearly three years.

At one point, Means also appealed to U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle in Des Moines, who had given Emmert the hefty sentence.

Wolle initially was not interested in helping arrange an early release. But then he decided that, while the sentence was legally correct, Emmert had been rehabilitated and deserved a break. “The purpose of the sentence I imposed has fully been served,” Wolle wrote the Justice Department in June 2004.

Six months later, Grassley came around, writing a letter on behalf of Emmert two days before Christmas. Hopes were high. But the holiday passed without word from Bush.

In December, Means received a call from the Justice Department: Bush granted clemency.

Emmert was summoned to the office of a corrections official at the federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn., and told to contact his lawyer. He was not prepared for the news he was about to receive.

” ‘You are going home a free man,’ ” he recalls Means telling him over the phone.

“I cried like a little girl. I pretty much lost it.”

Emmert was released Jan. 19, and, on a Sunday night in February, had an emotional homecoming at the First Assembly of God Church in Iowa, where he preached about his journey to a packed congregation that included some former biker friends. He had served 14 years, four months.

More deserving people

Orehowsky’s mother, whose August 2002 phone call launched the drive to free Emmert, was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and died five weeks later. She did not live to see her pen pal released.

Today, Emmert works the night shift as a housekeeper at the VA hospital in Iowa City. He is hoping to get day hours so he can preach and counsel drug users. He is rebuilding a small house that Dixie’s father bought her after she was paralyzed. His daughter, now 22, has an apartment in Iowa City.

In July, Emmert was watching a TV news report of Libby’s sentence being commuted, when he saw his name flash across the screen. “I stopped with my mouth full,” he said. “There was Scooter Libby, me and two other people.”

The report noted Emmert was part of an exclusive club: four people granted clemency by Bush. The other two — Geraldine Gordon and Bobby Mac Berry — were granted clemency on May 20, 2004, and were both serving time for drug-related offenses, according to the Department of Justice Web site.

“I know why I am on that list. It is because of the prayers of many, many people,” Emmert said. “But there are a lot more deserving people, if you take the time to look.”