Can Scooter Get a Refund?

A presidential pardon might not save Libby his $250,000 fine.

Scooter Libby. Click image to expand.
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, paid a $250,000 fine on Thursday, part of his punishment for lying to investigators about the leaked identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The president commuted his 30-month prison sentence on Tuesday, and so far hasn’t ruled out a full pardon. If Libby gets pardoned, can he get his money back?

Technically, yes, but it won’t be easy. Once a convicted criminal pays a fine, the treasury can’t issue a refund—even if that person is later exonerated. For Libby to get back his 250 Gs, Congress would need to pass a law to make the funds available. Or it’s possible that President Bush could issue a customized presidential pardon that specifies a refund.

Libby paid by cashier’s check, but the fine didn’t necessarily come out of his own pocket. There’s no law that says you have to pay with your own money; in fact, anyone could have walked to the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia and paid Libby’s fine for him outright. The money could have come from Libby’s legal-defense fund (which has $5 million in its coffers) so long as the fund’s trustee agrees. While Libby’s personal finances are a bit of a mystery today, that may soon change: According to the terms of his supervised release, he’s required to report all income of more than $500.

Felons who get tagged with a fine are often asked to pay by money order, but they can also pay by check or bank transfer. In general, you’re supposed to pay the moment you’re sentenced, though the timing is ultimately up to the judge. White-collar felons who can afford the fines are usually ordered to pay the full amount in one lump sum, but judges allow less affluent criminals to pay on monthly installment plans, assessed at a post-judgment interest rate of about 5 percent. In certain unusual situations, the judge can up the fine. For instance, an indigent criminal who suddenly wins millions in the lottery might be asked to fork over some of those scratch-off earnings.

Bonus Explainer: The district court issued Libby a receipt for $250,400 on Thursday afternoon. Why the extra $400?  The government typically charges criminals something called an “assessment” fee, to defray court costs or pay for the operation of federal prisons. Libby paid an extra fee of $100 for each of the four counts in his conviction.

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Explainer thanks Howard Kieffer of Federal Defense Associates; Margaret Love, former Department of Justice pardon attorney; Marvin Schechte; and Robert Weisberg of Stanford Law School.