Former Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky has received a presidential pardon for the federal extortion conviction that brought an abrupt end to his quixotic political career nearly two decades ago.
President Clinton granted the pardon Tuesday. Orlinsky got the news in a phone call that evening from his son, Eric G. Orlinsky, a Baltimore attorney who helped his father gain official forgiveness for the 1982 crime.
"You can't ever quite walk away," Orlinsky, 62, said yesterday. But, he said, "It is something. In the way America works, this is kind of something that says - at least from a societal point of view - that you have paid your dues."
He resigned from the city's second-highest elected office 18 years ago, after pleading guilty to extortion for accepting more than $10,000 from a sludge-hauling company that was seeking a city contract.
Orlinsky, who was diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year, said he sought the pardon to bring closure to his much-publicized case. But he said he does not consider the president's pardon a vindication.
"I am not sure that I shall ever be able to fully pardon myself for what I did," Orlinsky wrote in an e-mail to reporters.
"In my heart, there will always remain a place which says I did wrong," he wrote. "It will remind me of my continuing responsibility to try to heal the wounds of my sin."
A presidential pardon does not erase a conviction, but is considered forgiveness of the offense by the government. It restores civil rights, such as permission to own a firearm or to vote, to individuals convicted of felony crimes in federal court.
To be considered for a pardon, felons must wait five years after completing their sentences and apply directly to the president. Pardon petitions then are subjected to a Justice Department review, which includes an FBI background check.
From 1993 through January, Clinton received 1,856 pardon petitions, 185 of which he granted, Justice Department statistics show.
Orlinsky said this was his second petition for a pardon.
"A great number of pardons stop at the front door," said Baltimore attorney M. Albert Figiniski, who helped prepare Orlinsky's petitions. "But when they do go forward, it's a very exhaustive process."
Figinski said that Orlinsky has shown remorse for his wrongdoing and sought to make amends - working now with poor families at the city housing authority and in the early 1990s overseeing Maryland's TREEmendous program, which led to the planting of about 6.5 million trees and seedlings in the state.
"This result for my longtime friend is one of the nicest things that could happen on the eve of Thanksgiving," said Figinski, who has known Orlinsky since they were students at the Johns Hopkins University in the late 1960s.
Orlinsky said he was grateful to Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who, he said, pushed for his petition get full consideration in Washington. He said Mikulski, who served with Orlinsky on the City Council early in her political career, offered her help.
"She undertook to make sure the Justice Department and the White House each in turn understood this was an application that meant a great deal to her," Orlinsky said.
Mikulski could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Maryland's First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning declined to comment. FBI officials, who investigated the case against Orlinsky, also declined comment.
Orlinsky was 43 in 1982, when he was faced with a 12-count extortion indictment.
Orlinsky was known for his highly public tangles with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who later as governor appointed his old nemesis to oversee the state tree-planting effort. And he was known for his sometimes unorthodox positions - once railing against his own job as council president, saying it was a useless post that should be eliminated.
This summer, Orlinsky returned to City Hall. He is a $50,000-a-year employee with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, serving as a liaison for poor families at risk of losing their electricity.
For Orlinsky, it was a long road back after working in various private- and public-sector jobs after he served 4 1/2 months in federal prison. He had received a four-year sentence with all but six months suspended.
Mary Pat Clarke, a friend of Orlinsky's who served with him on the City Council in the 1970s, yesterday called the pardon great news. "Wally always took his punishment," Clarke said. "He paid the price. He did the time." And now, Clarke said, "He's been made whole."
The three character witnesses listed for Orlinsky's petition were Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr., a former Baltimore state's attorney now on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and lawyers Herbert S. Garten and S. Ronald Ellison, of Baltimore.
Garten, who has known Orlinsky for 25 years, also welcomed the news that the petition had been approved by the White House.
"I was very sad and disturbed to learn about his problems at the time," Garten said. "But I have followed him since he paid his debt, and I have admired his ability to persevere."
Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.