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Originally published Friday, January 16, 2009 at 2:10 PM

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Witnesses praise Holder despite past disagreements

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified Friday that Eric Holder played a role in a "corrupt" pardon. The Fraternal Order of Police chief said "we abhor" the clemency Holder supported for 16 Puerto Rican militants.

Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON —

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified Friday that Eric Holder played a role in a "corrupt" pardon. The Fraternal Order of Police chief said "we abhor" the clemency Holder supported for 16 Puerto Rican militants.

Nevertheless, they believe Holder would make a great attorney general.

The testimony of Freeh and national FOP President Chuck Canterbury on Friday, at Holder's confirmation hearing, followed the strategy the attorney general-designate used himself the previous day:

Admit mistakes to take the bite out of Republican criticism. Then emphasize Holder's positives from his years as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., a judge and a public corruption prosecutor.

"The pardon of Mark Rich was a corrupt act," Freeh told the Senate Judiciary Committee, referring to Bill Clinton's pardon of the fugitive financier on his last day in office. "There is no other way that I could describe it. But it was not an act by Eric Holder."

Freeh, following Holder's lead, said the nominee's past mistakes were a learning experience that will make him a better attorney general. Holder had told the White House he was neutral - leaning toward favorable - on the pardon.

The strategy appears to be working, as Holder moved closer Friday to confirmation as the nation's first African-American to head the Justice Department. He picked up support Friday from a second Republican, Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida - a day after gaining the endorsement of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

No Republican has announced opposition to Holder, although Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania questioned his fitness for the job on Thursday and on Friday appeared to wonder why Freeh was backing Holder.

"You have come down harder on the characterizations of what Mr. Holder has done than anybody else in the hearing," Specter said. "You say that the Rich pardon was a corrupt act. You said it was a terrible mistake. He allowed himself to be used and co-opted.

"Pretty tough words," Specter summed up.

With the conclusion of the two-day hearing Friday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., set a vote next Wednesday on favorably recommending Holder to the full Senate. A confirmation vote could come before the end of the week. With the two Republicans, the Democrats - along with two independents - would have enough votes to stop a filibuster.

Freeh had vehemently opposed the pardon of Rich - who fled the country after he was charged with tax evasion, fraud, and trading with the enemy - Iran - when that country held U.S. diplomats as hostages.

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Holder said he wasn't aware of Rich's ex-wife's large donations to the Democratic Party and the Clinton library.

Freeh strongly disagreed with Holder's recommendation that Clinton commute the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican nationalists whose organization - FALN - carried out bombings, robberies and murders.

The Holder strategists also knew that Canterbury, as the representative of police organizations, was upset about the FALN, the Spanish abbreviation for Armed Forces of National Liberation. Neither witness minced words in describing their feelings.

"Eric Holder made some terrible mistakes ... in allowing himself to be used and co-opted with respect to the facilitation of that (Rich) pardon. But he did not understand, he did not authorize, he certainly did not execute this pardon," Freeh said.

Freeh readily acknowledged he strongly disagreed with Holder's recommendation against naming an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fundraising abuses that reached into the White House.

"I couldn't think of a more compelling case to go to an independent prosecutor," Freeh said.

But he tempered the criticism, describing how Holder "went out of his way with me and the attorney general to say that, 'You know Louis has a different position, we have to respect that position,' and actually supported the fact that I was taking a different position."

The incident showed, Freeh said, "how I adjudge him to be willing and able to speak up and be independent."

Canterbury said of the FALN commutations, "We abhor the clemency that was granted. We thought it was wrong just like Director Freeh. We still think it was wrong."

The police official then said clemency "was a presidential issue and not his (Holder's) sole recommendation. We believe that he would be fair, and we look at it from the totality of circumstances in his career. And we feel comfortable, after an exhaustive review of his decisions as a judge and as a prosecutor."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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