President Donald J. Trump’s late-night commutation of a 10-year prison sentence being served by a drug smuggler named Jonathan Braun made the action sound almost routine. The White House said only that upon his release, Mr. Braun would “seek employment to support his wife and children.”
What the White House did not mention is that Mr. Braun, a New Yorker from Staten Island who had pleaded guilty in 2011 to leading a large-scale marijuana smuggling ring, still faces both criminal and civil investigations in an entirely separate matter, and has a history of violence and threatening people.
According to lawsuits filed in June against Mr. Braun and two associates by the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, and the Federal Trade Commission, Mr. Braun helped start and worked as a de facto enforcer for an operation that made predatory loans to small-business owners, threatening them with violence if they refused to pay up.
Federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan also have a continuing investigation into that operation, a person with knowledge of the investigation said Friday.
As recently as two and a half years ago, Mr. Braun was accused of throwing a man off a deck at an engagement party. Federal prosecutors said in a court proceeding that he threatened to beat a rabbi who borrowed money to renovate a preschool at his synagogue. “I am going to make you bleed,” he told the rabbi, according to court documents, adding, “I will make you suffer for every penny.”
How much Mr. Trump and his aides knew about Mr. Braun’s past and his current legal troubles is not clear. In its announcement of the pardon this week, the White House appears to have substantially overstated how much of his 10-year sentence Mr. Braun had completed, saying he had served five years when he had only reported to prison a year ago. (The White House announcement also misspelled his first name, calling him Jonathon.)
Mr. Braun’s family had told people it was willing to spend millions of dollars for lawyers and others to try to get him out of prison, according to two people who have been in contact with the family members in recent months.
No one registered under federal lobbying laws to make Mr. Braun’s case to the Trump administration, though registration would not necessarily be required for legal representation. The White House announcement of the wave of 143 pardons and commutations early Wednesday, just hours before Mr. Trump left office, did not cite anyone who had backed the commutation of Mr. Braun’s sentence.
The lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, who represented Mr. Trump in his first impeachment trial, said he “played a very limited role” in Mr. Braun’s clemency push, “almost exclusively” advising his father about the clemency process, and was paid “a very small amount of money” for his assistance.
Mr. Dershowitz said he believed Mr. Braun’s argument for clemency was “meritorious,” because Mr. Braun cooperated with prosecutors “for a good many years, and was told that his cooperation would be recognized and he didn’t get that recognition.”
His case is the latest evidence of how far the pardon process under Mr. Trump had strayed from the rigorous Justice Department guidelines and screening that previous presidents had largely relied on for clemency recommendations.
“Jonathan Braun has threatened small-business owners with violence, death and even kidnapping,” Ms. James said. “A federal commutation will not protect Mr. Braun from being held accountable in New York for the civil charges against him.”
Interviews and court documents paint a portrait of Mr. Braun as a major drug smuggler who once beat one of his underlings so badly with a belt that Mr. Braun told others he had left the victim “black and blue.” In another instance, he threatened violence against a woman who worked for him who was threatening to cooperate with prosecutors.
In response to questions about the pardon, Mr. Braun’s lawyer, Marc Fernich, declined to discuss how Mr. Braun had gotten his case in front of White House officials or who had represented him. But Mr. Fernich praised Mr. Trump’s action.
“Mr. Braun’s 10-year sentence was grossly unreasonable — an extreme statistical outlier — on the facts and circumstances of his case,” Mr. Fernich said in an email message. He said he applauded Mr. Trump’s “courage in correcting what was a grave injustice.”
A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not return an email message seeking comment.
Mr. Braun was indicted in 2010 and entered a plea deal in the drug case the next year after initially fleeing the country for Canada and Israel before turning himself in. He was not sentenced until 2019 and did not have to report to prison until last January.
While free on bail after his guilty plea but before reporting to prison, he plunged into a new enterprise, helping run an operation that made loans to small-business owners at extremely high interest rates. According to the suits filed last year by Ms. James, the New York State attorney general, and the Federal Trade Commission, Mr. Braun regularly threatened those who had trouble repaying the loans.
“I know where you live.” Mr. Braun told a small-business owner who he claimed owed him money, according to court documents filed by Ms. James.
Mr. Braun told the business owner he knew where his mother lived.
“I will take your daughters from you,” he said, according to the suit.
Mr. Braun is accused in the suit of telling another business owner: “Be thankful you’re not in New York, because your family would find you floating in the Hudson.”
Previous presidents relied on a Justice Department screening process for pardons that ensured they were being given in an evenhanded way and that those with money and connections were not receiving preferential treatment. But Mr. Trump largely disregarded that process and wielded his clemency powers unlike any previous president.
The Constitution gives presidents the ability to issue pardons and commutations, a brake on the criminal justice system and a way to show grace and mercy. But Mr. Trump doled out clemency to friends, allies, donors, witnesses who did not cooperate with investigations that involved him and his campaign, and those who could help him politically.
“When the Justice Department process is short-circuited, and there’s insufficient vetting — if you don’t take the time to look at someone’s history and potential other exposure — this is what you end up with: a process that appears corrupted by money and influence,” said Daniel Zelenko, a white-collar defense lawyer at Crowell and Moring and former federal prosecutor and enforcement lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The full story of Mr. Braun’s arrest, indictment and sentencing spans a decade and, according to prosecutors’s statements in court and filings in his case, often unfolded like a crime thriller.
In 2009, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a house on Staten Island that Mr. Braun’s drug trafficking network used to stash large stockpiles of drugs. Mr. Braun, who was in Florida at the time, learned from his underlings about the raid.
Immediately, Mr. Braun rented a car and with at least one associate drove 25 hours to the New York border with Canada.
“In the dead of night, dressed entirely in black and utilizing a motorless boat, Braun was ferried across the river into Canada, and remained there for several months, hiding out in one of the properties owned by his Canadian associate,” according to court documents filed by the Justice Department.
President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.
- May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
- May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
- May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
- May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
- Find more answers here.
Mr. Braun then fled to Israel where he took refuge for several months, hoping to avoid being apprehended as he continued to run his drug operation from an encrypted Blackberry phone, the documents say. In the fall of 2009, Mr. Braun returned to the United States, where he was arrested and jailed.
When he was indicted in 2010, he was charged with operating a marijuana ring that was one of the major distributors in New York City, smuggling in and selling $1.72 billion worth from 2007 to 2010.
“It is neither an exaggeration nor hyperbole to state that the defendant and his criminal enterprise generated illegal proceeds exceeding the gross domestic product of a small country,” the Justice Department said in a 2010 filing.
His lawyers sought at that point to convince a judge to release him on bail but prosecutors successfully kept him in jail, laying out how Mr. Braun had told others that he planned to flee the United States if he was released on bail.
“Braun specifically told a cooperating government witness that he would ‘never do time in jail,’” prosecutors said in a court filing. “Braun went on to explain that ‘for 10 grand, I could get a fake passport’ and be ‘on a beach somewhere where there is no extradition,’ still ‘making money.’”
In arguing that Mr. Braun should remain in prison, the prosecutors laid out a gruesome episode in which he beat a younger man working for him who had been given the job of guarding $100,000 worth of marijuana being kept in a house in California.
After Mr. Braun learned that the marijuana had been stolen, he called the man and demanded he give him $100,000. The man refused. Mr. Braun and one of his enforcers booked flights to California, arriving there the next morning. They broke into the house where they found the man in bed.
“Braun then took off his belt and proceeded to viciously whip his worker with the belt,” the court documents say. “At one point, the ‘kid’ tried to get away from Braun, but Braun’s enforcer pushed him back down onto the bed so that Braun could continue the beating. In Braun’s own words, his brutal assault left the ‘kid’s’ entire body ‘black and blue.’”
Mr. Braun pleaded guilty in 2011 to two counts of conspiring to import a controlled substance and money laundering. As part of his plea, prosecutors allowed him to be released on bail and live at home while awaiting sentencing. His sentencing was delayed repeatedly.
Legal experts and defense lawyers say that defendants are typically on their best behavior when they are out on bail and awaiting sentencing. But Mr. Braun continued to flout the law, according to the suits later filed against him by the New York State attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission.
In 2018, Bloomberg News wrote a series of articles about how Mr. Braun had emerged as a leading short-term lender to small businesses. While structured to try to avoid usury laws, the rates Mr. Braun changed were as high as 400 percent a year. The New York attorney general’s office opened an investigation in response to the articles.
The next year, a judge held a sentencing hearing for Mr. Braun on the drug trafficking charges. At the hearing, prosecutors laid out two recent episodes in which Mr. Braun had violently assaulted others. One allegation said that Mr. Braun had thrown someone off a two-story balcony at a Staten Island engagement party in the summer of 2018.
The other allegation related to how Mr. Braun had lent money to the Brooklyn rabbi for the preschool. The rabbi had fallen behind on the payments and Mr. Braun reportedly threatened to beat and humiliate him.
“I am coming to Crown Heights,” Mr. Braun said, according to a lawsuit filed by the synagogue. “I will hang papers all over the lampposts in Crown Heights stating that you are a liar and a thief. I am going to tell people that you are running an illegal operation and a scam.”
Fearing the rabbi would be attacked, the synagogue wired Mr. Braun $1,000 and hired a lawyer. In a subsequent call between Mr. Braun and the lawyer, Mr. Braun called the lawyer a profanity, according to the suit filed by the synagogue.
Shortly after Mr. Braun’s commutation was announced, Mr. Dershowitz said he received a call from Mr. Braun and his father.
“Everybody was very grateful. There were a lot of tears going around,” Mr. Dershowitz said, explaining that the father called again on Friday before the Jewish Sabbath. “And he said he is going to continue to call me every Shabbos, so I should expect a call.”
Kenneth P. Vogel and Ben Protess contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.