At Israel’s request, Trump pardons Israeli handler of spy Jonathan Pollard

Aviem Sella one of 73 people granted clemency; 70 have sentences commuted; list doesn’t include Trump or family; several Jewish convicts pardoned, incl. Lakewood Ponzi schemer

Aviem Sella giving a lecture in Herzliya in 2012. (Screenshot: YouTube)
Aviem Sella giving a lecture in Herzliya in 2012. (Screenshot: YouTube)

US President Donald Trump pardoned 73 people and commuted the sentences of 70 additional individuals in the final hours of his term on Wednesday. The list included several Jewish convicts as well as Aviem Sella, a top Israeli Air Force pilot who was the recruiter and operator of spy Jonathan Pollard.

The list does not include Trump himself or members of his immediate family. It does, however, include his former chief strategist Steve Bannon and several family allies.

Sella fled to Israel days before Pollard was arrested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, was indicted for espionage in 1987, but was never extradited.

A former fighter pilot who took part in the 1981 strike on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, Sella started working for the Mossad intelligence agency in the early 1980s and received some of the classified top-secret documents provided by Pollard.

He remained deeply involved in the affair despite not running Pollard for most of the espionage stint.

Aviem Sella. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The White House said Sella’s clemency request was supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Miriam Adelson, the wife of top conservative donor Sheldon Adelson who died last week.

“The State of Israel has issued a full and unequivocal apology, and has requested the pardon in order to close this unfortunate chapter in US-Israel relations,” the White House said.

Pollard, who was released from prison in 2015, was recently allowed to move to Israel after his parole restrictions were not renewed by the US Justice Department.

In a statement Wednesday, Pollard and his wife Esther said they were “very happy” about the decision, adding that it “puts an end to the affair’s bleeding wounds after 35 years.”

“We wish Aviem good luck,” they added. “After so many years of suffering, Esther and I want to only focus on the future rather than past wounds.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) greets released US spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard and his wife Esther at Ben Gurion Airport, December 30, 2020 (Courtesy)

Also pardoned was Elliott Broidy, a Trump family ally and Jewish Republican fundraiser who pleaded guilty last fall in a scheme to lobby the White House to drop an investigation into the looting of a Malaysian wealth fund, and Ken Kurson, a friend and former colleague of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who was charged last October with cyberstalking during a heated divorce.

Trump also pardoned or commuted the sentences of several Jewish businessmen jailed for white-collar crimes, including Shalom Weiss and Ponzi schemer Eliyahu Weinstein, who defrauded Lakewood Jews and others out of $200 million.

Elliott Broidy, February 27, 2008 (AP/David Karp)

Also on the list were New York art dealer and collector Hillel Nahmad, convicted on gambling charges, and Noah Kleinman, jailed for marijuana offenses.

A commutation was granted to rapper Bill Kapri, known as Kodak Black, who identifies as Jewish even though he hasn’t converted.

Other high-profile defendants included fellow rapper Lil Wayne. Both he and Kodak Black were convicted in Florida on weapons charges. Wayne, whose real name is Dwayne Michael Carter, has frequently expressed support for Trump and recently met with the president on criminal justice issues. Also on the list was Death Row Records co-founder Michael Harris.

Kodak Black arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 27, 2017, in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Other pardon recipients include former Rep. Rick Renzi, an Arizona Republican who served three years for corruption, money laundering and other charges, and former Rep. Duke Cunningham of California, who was convicted of accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Cunningham, who was released from prison in 2013, received a conditional pardon.

Trump also commuted the prison sentence of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has served about seven years behind bars for a racketeering and bribery scheme.

The list also includes a conditional pardon for philanthropist Stephen Odzer, convicted of bank fraud, saying that he has “dedicated resources to support and build synagogues in memory of his late cousin who was kidnapped and killed by Muslim terrorists while in Israel.”

The last-minute clemency follows separate waves of pardons over the last month for Trump associates convicted in the FBI’s Russia investigation. Taken together, the actions underscore the president’s willingness, all the way through his four years in the White House, to flex his constitutional powers in ways that defy convention and explicitly aid his friends and supporters.

Bannon has been charged with duping thousands of investors who believed their money would be used to fulfill Trump’s chief campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border. Instead, he allegedly diverted over a million dollars, paying a salary to one campaign official and personal expenses for himself.

US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon speaks with reporters after pleading not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall, August 20, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Whereas pardon recipients are conventionally thought of as defendants who have faced justice, often by having served at least some prison time, the pardon for Bannon nullifies a prosecution that was still in its early stages and likely months away from trial in Manhattan, effectively eliminating any prospect for punishment.

Though other presidents have issued controversial pardons at the ends of their administration, perhaps no commander in chief has so enjoyed using the clemency authority to benefit not only friends and acquaintances but also celebrity defendants and those championed by allies.

Trump has already pardoned a slew of longtime associates and supporters, including his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law; his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone; and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

AP contributed to this report.

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