WASHINGTON - President Clinton freed three federal prisoners Friday and granted Christmastime pardons to 59 others, including a once-powerful congressman indicted for misusing taxpayer money and a presidential friend ensnared in the corruption probe of a former Cabinet member.
Those pardoned in what the White House described as the first batch of clemency decisions by the president as he prepares to leave office, included:
-Dan Rostenkowski, a former Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, while a congressman from Illinois.
-Archie Schaffer III, a chicken company executive convicted as a result of the investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
-Rick Hendrick III, a NASCAR team owner, banished from the sport for a year after being sentenced for bribery and mail fraud.
Others pardoned had been convicted mostly of drug, tax and fraud charges.
The president commuted the sentences of three prisoners to time served: former Missouri House Speaker Bob F. Griffin, who was serving time for bribery and mail fraud; and two women who received long terms under federal drug sentencing guidelines.
Clinton's pardon of Rostenkowski was unexpected.
''I'm greatly appreciative,'' Rostenkowski, 72, told a group of reporters outside his Chicago home Friday.
Asked what he's going to do now, he replied: ''I'm going on with my life and continue to teach and continue to write op-ed pieces for the press, to advise and counsel people that need counseling with respect to government.''
Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two counts of misusing public funds in 1996 and served time in a minimum-security prison in Wisconsin. He was released from a halfway house in October 1997 after 451 days in federal custody.
He was not even eligible to request a pardon through the Justice Department, which requires that a person wait at least five years after completing a sentence before filing a pardon application. However, Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney said the Constitution gives the president broad authority to grant pardons.
Howard Pearl, a Chicago attorney who represented Rostenkowski during his criminal case, declined to say who interceded with the White House on Rostenkowski's behalf.
The president's pardon of Schaffer, an executive for Springdale, Ark.-based poultry producer Tyson Foods Inc., was not as surprising.
Schaffer was convicted in June 1998 of illegally trying to influence Espy, then the agriculture secretary, by inviting him to a May 1993 Tyson party in Russellville, Ark. He was convicted of violating a 93-year-old law that prohibits bribing meat inspectors.
''I would have preferred to have been vindicated by the judicial system,'' Schaffer said in a telephone interview. ''We were prepared to continue battling that, but we're pleased with this outcome as well.''
Schaffer, called out of a meeting at Tyson Foods to learn of Clinton's action, said getting a pardon was a fitting political solution because he remains ''convinced that politics was at the bottom of this ordeal from the outset.''
In a statement, Tyson said company officials believed in Schaffer's ''innocence from the very beginning of his long, arduous ordeal.''
Schaffer, who has known Clinton for nearly 30 years, was sentenced in September to a year plus one day in prison for trying to illegally influence Espy. But the U.S. Appeals Court of the District of Columbia ruled Dec. 14 that Schaffer could remain free pending appeals.
Espy, the target of Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz's six-year, $23 million investigation, was acquitted in December 1998.
White House press secretary Jake Siewert said the trial judge in Schaffer's case concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction, and the law required him to impose a sentence that was unjust. ''The president believes that what happened here was wrong,'' Siewert said.
Arkansas' top elected officials - including Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson - all pleaded with Clinton to give clemency to Schaffer, who is the nephew of former Arkansas governor and Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark.
The three prisoners freed included two women, who got entangled in the drug crimes of others, and ended up being subjects of a national campaign by women's groups and opponents of mandatory minimum prison sentences.
One is Kemba Smith, 28, of Richmond, Va., who was sentenced to 24 years and six months in prison with no chance of parole for helping her boyfriend Peter Hall, head of a violent drug ring.
The other is Dorothy Gaines, 42, of Mobile, Ala., who similarly received 19 years, seven months for her low-level role in a local drug ring. The men who ran the ring received more lenient sentences.
''President Clinton has shown mercy and integrity by releasing these individuals, who clearly aren't the drug kingpins Congress intended to target,'' said Laura Sager, director of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She urged Congress ''to go even further and initiate a review and reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws when the new session begins.''
Before Friday, Clinton had granted 196 pardons plus 22 commutations.
Clemency is an umbrella term meaning a merciful or lenient act by a judge, governor or president. A commutation reduces a criminal penalty, such as shortening a prison term. A pardon releases a person from the punishment of a crime. States have different criteria for restoring the individual rights of those granted presidential pardons, the Justice Department said.