DENVER — When President Trump pardoned two cattlemen from the high desert of Oregon this week, both convicted of setting fires on federal land, even their lawyer was mystified as to how the case got the attention of the White House.
“I don’t know the machinations of how it happened,” said Lawrence Matasar, a Portland lawyer who has represented the ranchers — Dwight L. Hammond, and his son, Steven D. Hammond. “This was not the standard process.”
Mr. Matasar, it seems, was unaware of the exact reach of Forrest Lucas, an Indiana oil products tycoon and friend of Vice President Mike Pence.
Mr. Lucas, a self-made multimillionaire with a sprawling empire that includes a ranch, an oil products company, several motor sports series, a television network, a film-production company and a well-funded activist and lobbying group with an anti-regulation, pro-rancher bent, has known the vice president for years.
With his wife, Mr. Lucas has donated more than $100,000 to Mr. Pence’s campaigns. Among other encounters, Mr. Pence recently joined him in a lavish suite at the home of the Indianapolis Colts football team: Lucas Oil Stadium. (Mr. Lucas, who likes to affix his name to most of his enterprises, has a $121.5 million deal to place his brand at the Colts’ front door).
The two had discussed a range of issues over the years, so when Mr. Lucas mentioned the Hammonds, Mr. Pence listened.
“We’re very lucky that my boss has been friends with the vice president,” said David Duquette, a close aide to Mr. Lucas who works for Protect the Harvest, the magnate’s lobbying and activist group. “That makes it easier for us to get our issues looked at.”
Mr. Lucas was not the only one to push for the release of the Hammonds, whose five-year sentences inflamed long-simmering tensions over federal land management in the West and inspired a weekslong armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in 2016, led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy.
Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, has dedicated significant time to the Hammonds’ cause. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had reportedly said he would discuss the matter with the president.
But the involvement of Mr. Lucas demonstrates how Mr. Trump appears to be mostly bypassing the traditional process of taking clemency recommendations from the Justice Department and is instead blessing the wishes of the well-connected.
About 10,000 applications for clemency sit with the Justice Department.
While other presidents have also gone ahead of Justice officials to pardon apparent allies, they have often waited until their final days in office to do so. Mr. Trump, by comparison, has issued high-profile pardons early and comparatively often — seemingly unconcerned by the appearance of leaning his ears toward those at the top.
Mr. Lucas, 76, founded Protect the Harvest, the activist group, to support ranchers, farmers and animal owners who oppose “radical groups” that seek to “pass laws or enact regulations that would restrict our rights, limit our freedoms, and hinder our access to safe, affordable food.”
The way Mr. Duquette tells it, Mr. Lucas got involved with the Hammond case around 2015.
The oil magnate mentioned the case to Mr. Pence, who was at the time the governor of Indiana. Then the governor became the vice president. Mr. Lucas mentioned the case again, and the vice president declared “he wanted to see it, he wanted his chief counsel to look at it,” Mr. Duquette said.
“We’ve been making the request since he’s been in office. Every time we get a chance to talk to him.”
Mr. Pence’s staff examined the case, Mr. Duquette said, and then it moved to the president’s office.
Soon afterward, Mr. Trump signed a pardon, the Hammonds were released, and on Wednesday, Mr. Lucas sent his private jet to pick the pair up from a California prison.
An aide to Mr. Pence gave a slightly different version of events, saying the vice president learned the details of the Hammond case from Representative Walden, “agreed it deserved consideration,” and suggested that the congressman take it to the president.
The aide, who declined to be identified, would not comment on whether Mr. Lucas influenced that decision.
Slipping out of the Lucas plane on Wednesday, the Hammonds stepped onto the airfield in Burns, Ore., by their ranch, to a crowd of supporters and reporters. Allies on horseback watched, flying American flags.
“There has been a lot of people supporting us to this point that I hope know how much we appreciate it,” said the son, Steven, 49.
“There is no way we can thank everybody enough,” said his father, Dwight, 76.
And Dwight Hammond’s wife, Susie, praised one person in particular, a thin man who stood by in black pants and a purple button-up shirt. “I’d really like to say thanks to Forrest.”
Back in Portland, the Hammonds’ lawyer, Mr. Matasar, said that he and his colleagues had submitted petitions for release — in November 2016 and March 2017 — but did not think they had much of a chance.
In the end, he said, his clients got more than they asked for.
“We requested clemency and got a pardon,” he said. “Somebody with a five-year sentence, and someone whose prosecutor was opposed would never get a pardon under the previous regime.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump has bucked tradition, forgoing a process by which the Justice Department reviews cases and forwards them to the president. His first pardon went to Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff and a longtime supporter. Subsequent pardons have gone to people brought to the president’s attention by the reality television star Kim Kardashian West and the actor Sylvester Stallone.
This has concerned some, including Margaret Love, who ran the Justice Department’s pardon program from 1990 to 1997, serving for parts of the elder Bush and the Clinton administrations. “If the process is rigged in favor of people with influence and power,” she said, “it isn’t what this country is supposed to be about.”
Of course, Mr. Trump is not the only president accused of favoritism. Mr. Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich caused outrage. Mr. Rich was a fugitive financier whose wife had donated to the Clinton library foundation and the Democratic Party.
But in the past, Ms. Love said, “the vast majority of pardons were granted to ordinary little people with no friends in high places.”
The Hammonds, who run a ranch in eastern Oregon, have a long history of disputes with the federal government. They were convicted in 2012 of arson on land where they had grazing rights.
Both were convicted of setting a 2001 fire; the son was also convicted of setting a 2006 fire. The men were charged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a law that carried a five-year minimum sentence.
But the federal judge handling the case, Michael Hogan, instead gave them lesser sentences, saying the five-year penalty would be “grossly disproportionate” to the crimes.
The Hammonds served their time. But when prosecutors challenged the shorter terms, another judge in 2015 sent them back to prison.
As news of the second imprisonment spread, angry ranchers — led by the Bundy family — and their allies converged in Burns, later rushing to a nearby wildlife refuge for a takeover that turned into a catchall protest against the federal government.
But the Hammonds say they never asked for the Bundys or the militiamen, nor did they condone the occupation.
At a news conference on Wednesday, before heading home, father and son noted that thousands of people had sent letters of support.
“The last one that tipped the scale can’t be fully appreciated without appreciating everybody before him,” Dwight Hammond said. “And folks that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about us two guys standing up here — it’s about America.”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Then Steven Hammond turned to Mr. Lucas, wrapping him in a giant hug.
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