Even in the midst of controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s unrestrained utilization of his pardoning authority towards the end of his tenure, one particular commutation drew attention.
Jonathan Braun from New York had only completed two and a half years of a ten-year sentence for operating a large-scale marijuana operation. However, Mr. Trump, in the early hours of his last day in office, declared his release.
Without a doubt, Mr. Braun was an unusual choice for a commutation.
Originally from Staten Island, Braun was known for his history of violent threats. He once told a rabbi who owed him money: “I am going to make you bleed.” Braun’s family had indicated to close associates that they were prepared to spend millions of dollars to secure his release from prison.
Back then, both New York state and federal authorities were still pursuing him for his role in a different case – his career as a predatory lender, involved in fraudulent schemes and unlawful loans to financially strapped small businesses.
Nearly three years later, new questions are being raised about the implications of Mr. Braun’s commutation, how Mr. Trump manipulated criminal justice decisions and his potential actions in a second term, wherein he could fulfill promises of releasing supporters found guilty of storming the Capitol and even possibly pardoning himself if convicted of the federal charges he is currently facing.
In the months following his release granted by Mr Trump, Mr Braun resumed his career as a predatory lender, claims the attorney general of New York State. A New York state judge prohibited Braun from continuing his business in the industry a couple of months ago. Subsequently, a federal judge issued a nationwide ban against him following a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission.
A new investigation from The New York Times, based on official documents and interviews with present and former officials familiar with Mr Braun’s case, discloses even greater consequences from the commutation than were previously uncovered and new insights into Mr Braun’s history and the details of his commutation process.
The commutation significantly impeded an important criminal investigation spearheaded by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan that aimed to penalize members of the predatory lending industry who caused harm to small businesses. Negotiations were ongoing between Mr Braun and prosecutors over a cooperation deal, requiring him to provide inside information on industry insiders in exchange for his release from prison. However, the commutation annihilated any leverage the government held over Mr Braun.
While the inquiry into the industry and Mr Braun’s activities are still open, they’re hampered by the absence of an insider informant.
On multiple occasions, the justice system did not fully account for Mr Braun’s activities. After confessing to drug charges in 2011, Braun agreed to assist with an ongoing investigation which kept him outside prison under surveillance for nine years. During that time, he managed to establish himself as a predatory lender who often resorted to violent threats towards individuals owing him money, court papers reveal.
After resuming predatory lending post prison release, Mr Braun is still engaging in dishonest business practices, according to regulators and customers.
In order to secure his release, Mr Braun’s family leveraged their connection to Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner (Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor), to put the matter before the president. Jared Kushner’s White House office devised the language used in the public announcement of commutations for Braun and others.
In a telephonic interview, Mr Braun claimed he was oblivious to the details of his commutation process.
“I believe God made it happen for me because I’m a good person and I was treated unfairly,” he stated, adding that his supporters pursued “multiple paths” to secure his release from prison but he was uncertain as to which one had worked.
He opined that the 10-year sentence he received for marijuana trafficking was excessively severe, positioning him as a casualty of the criminal justice system. On the other hand, he rejected any allegations of illegality as a lender, and asserted that he had never entered into discussions with prosecutors about aiding in the criminal predatory lending inquiry.