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Upton: 'Beyond disappointed' with Trump pardon of ex-Michigan congressman

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump has pardoned Mark Siljander, a former Michigan congressman who pleaded guilty in 2010 to obstruction of justice and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

Siljander, a Republican, represented southwest Michigan in the U.S. House from 1981 through 1986, when he lost to current U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, in the primary. Upton said Thursday that he was "beyond disappointed" with Trump's decision to use his pardon authority for Siljander.

In 2012, federal prosecutors argued he deserved a "significant sentence" and proposed a prison term of three to four years.

Siljander had "accepted a plea bargain and lesser charges and still served a year in federal prison after having been indicted with a series of federal crimes including obstruction of justice, money laundering and lobbying for an international terrorist group with ties to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban," Upton said.

Mark Siljander, left, and President Ronald Reagan arrive aboard Air Force One in Kentwood, Michigan, Sept. 20, 1984.

"Just stunned," the current congressman added. "I wish the president would instead focus his energy on helping the millions of families and small businesses ravaged by the pandemic."

After losing his seat in the U.S. House, Siljander moved to Virginia and was sentenced to 12 months in prison in 2012 after federal prosecutors accused him of receiving $75,000 from the Islamic American Relief Agency to push for its removal from a federal government list of charities suspected of funding terrorism.

The charity had been accused of transferring $130,000 to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the U.S. government said had "participated in and supported terrorist acts committed by al-Qa’ida and the Taliban," according to a 2008 indictment.

Siljander had advised the executive director of the charity to transfer funds to him "by funneling them through nonprofit entities," according to his plea agreement filed in court. He was initially also accused of money laundering.

He later made false statements to authorities saying he had not been hired by the Islamic American Relief Agency to perform advocacy services and said payments he received were "charitable donations intended to assist him in writing a book about bridging the gap between Islam and Christianity," the plea agreement document said.

He eventually admitted the statements were false, according to the document.

"(S)iljander admits that by making the false statements, he did so with the intent to obstruct and impede the due administration of justice," the agreement said.

The White House announced Siljander's pardon on Wednesday night. He was one of 26 people who received full pardons from Trump that day, less than a month before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. Others on the list included Charles Kushner, the father of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign manager.

Mark Siljander, 1992.

The press release from the White House said Siljander, who was known for touting his Christian views while in office, was one of Congress's "most stalwart defenders of pro-life principles and the namesake of the 'Siljander Amendment,' which prohibits U.S. funds from being used to lobby for or against abortion."

"Mr. Siljander served a year in prison for obstruction of justice and failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act," the release said. "Since his incarceration, Mr. Siljander has devoted himself to traveling in the Middle East and Africa to promote peace and mutual understanding."

Siljander's pardon was supported by former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Alabama U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt and Pastor Andrew Brunson, according to the press release.

Siljander didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday.

In their 2012 sentencing memo for Siljander, prosecutors requested three years of supervised release to follow his prison term. The filing included 29 pages describing the former congressman’s checkered past and other close brushes with the law.

He was a witness in a 1990s case involving the embezzlement of funds from the Michigan Legislature. Some of the money went to Siljander for “his assistance brokering an arms sale to Croatia,” the prosecutors wrote.

Later in the 1990s, he “was one of the three principals involved in a venture which resulted in the conviction of his two cohorts for immigration fraud,” the prosecutors added.

They also noted that Siljander claimed to have doctoral degrees from “two unaccredited institutions known to be diploma mills.” And they said he had traded on his status as a former lawmaker and lobbyist to obtain letters of reference.

They argued a significant sentence was “both justified and necessary.”

“Those in the business of peddling influence pay close attention to penalties meted out to colleagues, like Siljander, who violate the law,” the U.S. attorneys wrote. “They carefully calculate how close to — or how far past — the line between legality and illegality they may venture in order to collect their fees, and what the possible consequences might be."

Siljander’s attorneys countered that “unlike many of his peers who have used public office as a gateway to personal wealth, Siljander forfeited personal comfort and financial security, as well as that of his family, to pursue a deep and persistent calling to reconcile people of different faiths.”

His life has been defined by his “extraordinary commitment to developing a language of respect, understanding, and peace, especially between Christians and Muslims,” they said.

Siljander served on the Fabius Township Board of Trustees and two terms in the Michigan House before running for the U.S. House in a special election in 1981.

In 1986, he faced a primary challenge from Upton. Siljander described the race as a war against Satan, according to past Detroit News reporting.

During the race, Siljander sent a recording to churches in his district, pleading with them to fast and pray and help him "break the back of Satan." But Upton defeated him 56%-44% despite being outspent 3-1, Upton said in a September interview, and has represented southwest Michigan in the U.S. House since.

“He was a fellow conservative. His focus was on foreign affairs, and my focus was jobs here at home,” Upton said earlier this year.

Upton at the time worked in the Reagan White House, where he was in charge of congressional affairs in the Office of Budget and Management. Then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole went to west Michigan to speak at a Lincoln Day dinner in support of Upton during the primary, he said.

According to a 1992 Detroit News story, Siljander later marketed a home test kit for AIDS and became a consultant-lobbyist for African and Asian nations. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Virginia in 1992.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

cmauger@detroitnews.com