In a seemingly unprecedented move, President Bush yesterday revoked a pardon he had issued just 24 hours earlier for a politically connected real estate developer who defrauded hundreds of low-income home buyers - acknowledging that White House aides had not fully described the scope of the crimes that had been committed and the context of the clemency application.
The unexpected Christmas Eve reversal came after it was discovered that the pardon of Isaac Toussie had not met Justice Department guidelines, and that Toussie's father had donated $28,500 to the Republican National Committee, prompting some of Toussie's victims to complain that he had been bailed out thanks to his White House ties.
The pardon also threatened to embarrass Bush because Toussie, in bypassing normal procedures and taking his case directly to the West Wing, had hired a former top lawyer in the White House counsel's office, Bradford Berenson, who had access to the president's most senior advisers.
Bush has used his pardoning power only sparingly during his eight years in the White House. Until now, his most controversial clemency decision was commuting the sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who had been convicted of lying to prosecutors in the Valerie Plame leaks case, but even Libby has not received a full pardon.
White House officials said that Bush, when he learned new details of the Toussie case, was especially concerned about the fact that campaign contributions could have been seen as a factor.
"Everyone here was surprised by it," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
A written statement from the White House took the unusual step of pinning blame on Bush's staff, saying that White House counsel Fred Fielding had "reviewed the application and believed, based on the information known to him at the time, that it was a meritorious application. He so advised the President, who accepted the recommendation."
The White House statement referred obliquely to "information that has subsequently come to light," though aides declined to provide specifics beyond the fact that the president had not known about the RNC contribution and that he has limited time to consider the details of every pardon case.
"It's hard to go through everything with him," Fratto said. "There's a lot of pardon petitions that he reviews, and so it's hard to go into a lot of depth."
Experts said Wednesday they knew of no other instance where a presidential pardon had been revoked. They said it was not clear whether Bush was legally allowed to do so.
"I can't think of another time that it's happened for a presidential pardon," said Margaret Love, who was the lead pardon attorney under the first President Bush and for part of the Clinton administration. "It's not clear to me that it's as easy to do as all that."
Some analysts suggested that Toussie might be able to challenge the reversal in court. White House aides said that the pardon does not take effect until it is physically delivered to Toussie and that he had not yet received it when Bush changed course on Wednesday.
More troubling, some said, was the fact that the pardon had been approved in the first place.
Tribune Washington Bureau reporter Cynthia Dizikes contributed to this article.