'Automotive News' urgings for clemency made difference

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President Clinton's pardon of refugee financier Marc Rich has given leniency a bad name, but here's a story about one woman whose prison sentence was commuted after what our publication Automotive News called "a travesty of justice."

In an editorial in December, with the headline "One final job for Clinton: Free Toni Frink," Automotive News stated that Ms. Frink, a former car dealer, had served 11 years of a 15-and-one-half year term in a federal prison. "Her crime? She sold cars to people who turned out to be drug dealers."

Automotive News said Ms. Frink "was convicted and given a mandatory sentence as part of the hysteria that surrounded the war on drugs in the late 1980s. Ironically, the drug dealers to whom she sold the vehicles were so horrible and dangerous that they were released almost immediately when they rolled over on higher-ups in the drug chain. Ms. Frink wasn't part of the chain so there was no one she could finger."

The war on drugs, including the ads run by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, has generated a lot of heat over the years. Critics say that the Drug Enforcement Agency is overzealous and unrelenting in pushing for harsh penalties for drug using or dealing, such as the one handed out to Ms. Frink. But I think the critics go too far when they call the ad people who create the anti-drug ads dupes of the DEA, as another of our publications, Creativity, did last year. We said that "agencies have played a huge part in demonizing pot." But the fact of the matter is, when the Partnership's anti-drug ads run, drug usage among young people goes down, and whether or not you believe smoking pot leads to harder drugs, or even to an addiction to tobacco, how can that be a bad thing?

At any rate, Automotive News' coverage of Toni Frink began in 1994, and our newspaper kept up a steady drumbeat since. Our story said that she was indicted and convicted on three counts of drug violations, including "conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine" and "aiding and abetting in the distribution of cocaine." Ms. Frink claimed she knew nothing of the drug-dealing scheme and violated no laws--she was simply duped by an acquaintance and former car salesman who she thought managed fleets for companies in Florida that were relocating to Ohio.

Her hands were not entirely clean. The problem for Ms. Frink was that she didn't report the cash transactions to the Internal Revenue Service. She claimed she didn't violate the law that requires cash transactions of more than $10,000 to be reported because she was never paid $10,000 or more at one time. But the law states that any trade or business that receives $10,000 cash in one transaction or two or more related transactions must report them, according to our story.

Not many people or organizations came to her defense, we reported. At the time, in 1994, General Motors declined to talk with Automotive News about the Frink case. The National Automobile Dealers Association said it wasn't familiar with Ms. Frink's plight. But a GM official, now retired, who worked with Ms. Frink when she applied to GM's dealer-development program, said he believes her sentence was unusually harsh and that the treatment of Ms. Frink was "unconscionable." But neither he nor the dealer who trained Ms. Frink were called as witnesses.

In our latest editorial on the subject, in December, Automotive News said Ms. Frink has been a model prisoner, and we concluded: "Mr. President, Toni Frink has more than paid any debt to society. Her continuing imprisonment is a travesty of justice. To have ignored her plight for eight years is a blight on your administration, but there is still time to do the right thing.

"Free Toni Frink. Now."

Our newspaper made sure that President Clinton, several U.S. senators, congressmen and prominent Justice Department officials received copies of our previous news stories and editorial opinions.

On Jan. 20, the last day of President Clinton's final term, he commuted Ms. Frink's sentence.

As Ed Lapham, Automotive News editor, put it: "We made a difference, and we're proud of it." So are all of us at Crain Communications.

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