MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota sex offender Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined in pardoning two years ago faces new molestation charges, a situation that could be used against Pawlenty in a possible presidential run.
Pawlenty was part of a three-person board that pardoned Jeremy Giefer. Giefer was 19 when he was charged in 1993 with having sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, whom he later married. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail; he had served his time and was free when the pardon was granted. Giefer is now charged with sexually abusing another girl more than 250 times both before and after he was pardoned in 2008.
The other members of the state pardons board were Attorney General Lori Swanson, a Democrat, and Eric Magnuson, who was then chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Pawlenty spokesman Bruce Gordon noted the vote was unanimous but also said the board would not have pardoned Giefer if it had known about the new allegations.
"The governor has consistently opposed pardons for sex offenders and believes sex offenses are heinous," Gordon said. "However, the board made an exception in this case and voted unanimously to pardon this 1994 conviction because it involved sexual conduct between two people who became husband and wife, maintained a long-term marriage, had a family together, and because the defendant completed his sentence many years before seeking the pardon which his wife and others supported."
Analysts said the pardon could be a problem for Pawlenty if he emerges as a serious contender for the GOP nomination in 2012.
Giefer, now 36, of Vernon Center, is charged with 12 felony counts, including five of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The criminal complaint filed in Blue Earth County District Court on Nov. 18 said the victim told police the abuse began when she was 9 and continued until she was 16. Giefer's attorney, Robert Docherty, said his client says he did nothing wrong and will be found innocent.
The connection between Giefer and Pawlenty was first reported Sunday by Bluestem Prairie, a blog of news about rural Minnesota.
Pawlenty hasn't declared his candidacy so far, nor have several other better-known potential candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
The pardon could become fodder for a hard-hitting attack ad during the 2012 presidential primaries and caucuses if Pawlenty emerges as a front-runner, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Sabato said rivals would portray him as someone who pretended to be a conservative Republican but pardoned a sex offender who went on to assault a girl hundreds of times, which could hurt him among tough-on-crime voters, he said.
Clemency has tripped up other candidates. The infamous "Willie Horton" TV commercial helped sink the 1988 presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton, a convicted killer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, was released from prison under a weekend furlough program backed by Dukakis, then raped a woman after he failed to return to prison.
Huckabee might face a bigger pardon problem than Pawlenty, Sabato said. While he was governor of Arkansas, Huckabee had a role in pardoning or commuting the sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, including Maurice Clemmons, who killed four Seattle-area police officers in November 2009. Huckabee had made Clemmons eligible for parole. Huckabee's role in the earlier release of convicted rapist Wayne DuMond, who murdered a woman after being paroled, was the subject of an attack ad during his 2008 presidential run.
The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary is more than a year away. Dante Scala, chairman of the political science department at the University of New Hampshire, said he didn't think the pardon would hurt Pawlenty much given the vote was unanimous and that the new allegations hadn't surfaced at the time.
But the pardon won't help Pawlenty as he attempts to reach out to conservatives in early primary and caucus states, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
"He's largely unknown in New Hampshire so any news that comes out like this, if this is what people in the state know him for, it's not good news," Smith said.