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How an ex-U.S. attorney for Utah’s push for Trump pardons fits his about-face on criminal justice

Brett Tolman went from being a tough prosecutor to championing defendant rights, same-sex marriage and help for female victims of violent crimes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman has been lobbying the White House to gain pardons for his clients — and earning tens of thousands of dollars or more for doing it.

Brett Tolman, the former U.S. attorney for Utah who’s making headlines for making big bucks lobbying the White House for pardons for his clients, has made news before — as an advocate for women who are victims of violent crimes and a crusader reforming the legal system.

More recently, however, Tolman has been advising the Trump administration on pardons and commutations. And, according to The New York Times, he “has been collecting tens of thousands of dollars, and possibly more” lobbying for “clemency for the son of a former Arkansas senator; the founder of the notorious online drug marketplace Silk Road; and a New York City socialite who pleaded guilty in a fraud scheme.”

It’s the latest twist in a career that cast Tolman as a tough prosecutor, a strong advocate for defendants, a supporter of same-sex marriage, and a champion for reforming the legal system.

After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in English in 1994 and a law degree 1998, Tolman clerked for the late U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Utah and as a counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee under chairmen Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. With Hatch’s strong backing, Tolman was appointed as U.S. attorney for Utah by President George W. Bush and confirmed in June 2006.

Elizabeth Smart case

Tolman — inspired by the kidnapping and rape of a family member — made cases involving violence against women a priority. He led the effort to move the case against the man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart to federal court, leading to a conviction in 2010, the year after he left the U.S. attorney’s office.

While he was U.S attorney, Tolman would warn business leaders that he could find a way to prosecute executives of any company for federal crimes. By 2018, he was a critic of the judicial system, and, he told The Salt Lake Tribune he realized “how absolutely horrifying that is. That I could prosecute any individual because that’s how broad I felt the law was and how powerful I felt my position was? It’s pretty haunting now.”

After resigning and entering private practice in 2009, Tolman became a crusader against what he saw as unfairness and imbalance in the court system. In 2015, he testified to Congress that “more and more individuals, on both sides of the political aisle, are recognizing that many of these low-level offenders are being given extremely long sentences in federal prisons — sentences that too often do not match the gravity of the crimes committed.”

Tolman backed bail reform in Utah, telling the Legislature that public safety should not be based solely on the whether someone has the money to get out of jail. He also lobbied for the end of the death penalty. Tolman said most of the victims’ family members he knew while he was a prosecutor did not want the death penalty imposed, adding that it does little to deter crime.

In 2013, Tolman bucked the Republican establishment and came out in favor of same-sex marriage. Inspired by his sister’s three-decade wait to marry her longtime partner, he co-wrote a friend-of-the-court brief for the Utah Pride Center backing gay marriage in a case before the Supreme Court. He supported the right of churches to prohibit same-sex marriage, “but for the government to pass a law that indicates you will never be equal, that’s very difficult.”

White House signing

When the legal reforms he championed became the First Step Act — a bipartisan criminal justice bill co-written by Sen. Mike Lee, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump — Tolman was invited to the White House for the signing ceremony. In the past two years, he has been more involved in lobbying outgoing Trump and his advisers on clemency issues — including the pardon of Weldon Angelos, a Utah music producer who was originally sentenced to 55 years in prison on a marijuana selling and gun possession conviction because of mandatory minimum sentencing rules.

Since that ceremony in December 2018, Tolman has functioned as an informal adviser to Trump on pardons and commutations. And, according to The Times, Trump’s White House “favors pardon-seekers who have connections to Trump or his team, or who pay someone who does,” according to a pardon lawyer who “worked for years through the Justice Department system.”

There’s nothing illegal about lobbying for pardons, and Tolman shares his successes proudly. His law firm’s website includes a page proclaiming, “In the News: Brett Tolman Helps with White House Pardons” — and an announcement that “President Trump granted a full pardon to Charles Kushner.”

Kushner, who is the father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was convicted of tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering in 2005.

Tolman tweeted “I’m proud of my team’s clemency work” and noted that while “some have been paying clients, many have been pro bono.”

He continues to advocate for judicial reform. On Thursday, he tweeted that the “first thing I want and expect” from the Biden administration’s Justice Department is “retroactive application” of the First Step Act” to “crack/powder sentencing.” He also pushed for moving the Office of the Pardon Attorney out of the Justice Department and into the White House, explaining that “federal expungement needs to pass, but until then” the White House should approve “many, many pardons.”

According to media reports, Trump plans to issue at least 100 more pardons and commutations Tuesday before he leaves office the next day.

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