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Jewish Journal

Bush should pardon Mike Milken

by Dean Rotbart

December 18, 2008 | 3:38 am

I sat alone in Michael Milken's office several years back and listened as he interrupted our conversation to take a phone call. It wasn't the first time.

On an almost daily basis, surely no week passes without a fresh example, Milken and his colleagues personally field calls from distraught individuals who have that day received a fatal health diagnosis. Sometimes the caller is perched at death's door; sometimes it is a loved one staring into the abyss.

Often, the individuals reaching out to Milken are linked to him through several degrees of separation, as in, "I work at the same company where the chairman is friends with one of your friends."

Just down the hall from Milken's Santa Monica office, where I was quartered for over a year, sat a full-time scientific adviser who devoted a large chunk of his week to taking these desperate calls and arranging for specialists to "look at the charts" and provide a free second opinion.

"What was the PSA [prostate-specific antigen]," Milken asked the caller, scribbling notes like a physician taking a medical history. "And the Gleason score?"

"It's not good," Milken told the caller in a direct but compassionate tone. He proceeded to provide names and numbers off the top of his head of specialists for the caller to contact. Milken then phoned his medical colleague down the hall, apprised him of the specifics and instructed, "Look after them."

Lest you think any of this was done as some sort of "show" for my benefit, it was not. A pretense can be maintained through a single interview or perhaps several. But I was employed by Milken, a sub-subordinate, and no one he needed to impress, not even with the thought that some day, years later, I might have something positive to say about the man.

But I do.

Milken is a good man. Dare I say, a tzadik (righteous one)? His visible contributions to the care of prostate cancer victims and health care reform are buttressed by the donation of his time, creativity, energy and wealth that the public never sees, much less acknowledges.

More broadly, Milken is one of the world's greatest proponents of human capital. He believes the wealth of great businesses and great nations lies squarely with their people. Health care is one aspect of leveraging human capital, as is education and access to capital, all causes that Milken regularly and effectively champions.

Along with his brother, Lowell, and other family members and close friends, the Milkens have set in place wonderful programs, including the Milken National Educator Awards and the Jewish Educator Awards, to provide quality teachers a meaningful tribute to their efforts.

Against all of this good, and so many additional programs -- visible and unheralded -- stands Milken's April 1990 guilty plea to six criminal charges related to securities transactions. The charges did not -- repeat did not -- include insider trading or racketeering.

Anyone who has closely examined what it is that Milken confessed to will tell you the crimes are so esoteric, so nuanced as to be nearly indecipherable.

Personally, I believed then -- long before I ever met Milken -- and believe all the more so today that Milken's true crime was being such an unapologetically successful, Jewish innovator. By falling on his sword and accepting almost two years in prison, Milken spared his brother and others close to him from prosecution.

But set all that aside. Even if you don't buy my argument that Milken's crimes were largely trumped-up charges -- backed by the scurrilous testimony of Ivan F. Boesky -- there can be no debate as to how Milken has handled himself in the 15-plus years since his release from prison. He has been a model citizen.

Indeed, those who know Milken well (not I), tell me that he was the same man before and after his conviction. His dedication to charity and the less fortunate is not newfound but part and parcel of the man.

Even if you can't bring yourself to buy that, buy this: If Milken isn't a role model of how a convicted white-collar criminal can make amends, then who will ever be?

I don't know Bernard L. Madoff, Marc Dreier and the others accused of ripping off clients and innocent victims on Wall Street and throughout the nation. Their alleged victims are flesh and blood -- not just the amorphous regulations that Milken supposedly violated.

Throw in corporate crooks, such as Jeffrey Skilling, Conrad Black, Bernard Ebbers, John Rigas and Dennis Kozlowski, and by comparison Milken emerges -- both before and after his conviction -- as a knight among skunks.

It is time to cement Milken's place as a reformed and repentant Wall Street executive. Milken is the hope that we in society can hold for the Madoffs and Skillings of our day, that they may yet embrace good deeds and some day use their remaining breaths to further society's needs instead of their own.

It is time to set the Milken record straight. Even Rudolph Giuliani, the former federal prosecutor who doggedly pursued Milken, has been calling for his pardon since at least 2001. "If I were there sitting in my old place in the Justice Department, I would recommend one [a pardon], and if I were the president, I would sign one, and if the president does sign one, I'd congratulate him," Giuliani told The Wall Street Journal in April 2001.

The judgment of history awaits President Bush and his eight years in office. No doubt Bush anticipates the judgment will be favorable.

Before he leaves the Oval Office for the final time, Bush can right one more wrong. He can, and most certainly should, grant a full pardon to Milken.

History will remember him kindly for it.

Dean Rotbart, a former columnist and news editor at The Wall Street Journal, is a Los Angeles-based publisher of media-related Internet sites. He blogs for JewishJournal.com on The Memo.

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