UPDATED: In the days before outgoing President Trump finally revealed his long list of last-minute pardons and commutations at around 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday, several names in the entertainment world had been mentioned as likely candidates: some accurate (rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, Death Row Records cofounder Michael “Harry O” Harris); some inaccurate (Joe Exotic); some whose music background is less known (longtime Rudy Giuliani and Jared Kushner associate Ken Kurson, who played in indie-rock bands in the late ‘80s).
But few expected to see the name of Desiree Perez, who is CEO of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation empire and, along with her husband, Roc Nation Sports chief Juan Perez, is a longtime and valued associate of the rapper’s.
“President Trump granted a full pardon to Desiree Perez,” the relevant section of the Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding Executive Grants of Clemency reads. “Ms. Perez was involved in a conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Since her conviction, Ms. Perez has taken full accountability for her actions and has turned her life around. She has been gainfully employed and has been an advocate for criminal justice reform in her community.”
“Gainfully employed” is almost a comic understatement for the successful CEO of a billionaire’s multi-faceted, multi-million-dollar entertainment and sports company that oversees the careers of artists including Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Shakira, J. Cole, Big Sean, Megan Thee Stallion and many others, along with multiple successful athletes, and programs the Super Bowl Halftime show and other aspects of the NFL’s entertainment (it’s no coincidence that last year’s halftime performers were Shakira and longtime friend of Roc Jennifer Lopez). And Perez’s past offenses are among the less-notorious in Trump’s extremely long list of executive pardons and commutations.
After her 1994 arrest for conspiracy with intent to distribute narcotics, Perez cooperated the US Attorney’s office and received a sentence of five years’ probation. Among other offenses, she was later charged with parole violation and served nine months in prison in 1999.
“I’m grateful to have received a pardon and to have formally closed that chapter of my life in the eyes of the law,” Perez, now 52, said in a statement Wednesday morning. “I have taken full accountability for my mistakes from 25 years ago, but I also take tremendous pride in my personal growth, perseverance and accomplishments since then. This pardon reinforces my lifelong commitment to advocate for criminal justice reform and social justice initiatives.”
“I feel good, but a little numb,” she told the New York Times separately, noting that she had applied for the pardon just two days before she received. “I haven’t forgiven myself and I’m not sure I ever will.” Perez declined Variety‘s request for an interview.
But how did the pardon come about? Insiders speculated that Van Jones — a lawyer, author and CNN correspondent who is represented by Roc Nation — may have helped to navigate the treacherous waters of the Trump Administration, although a source close to the situation denied that Jones was involved.
It’s an easy assumption to make: While he is outwardly no fan of the former president, Jones worked closely with the Administration on many occasions and is said to be close with Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. He also worked with Kim Kardashian to procure the release from prison of Alice Marie Johnson, who had been serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense. After meeting with Kardashian in September 2018, Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence and she walked free after 21 years in prison.
Their connection came after Jones and members of #Cut50, the criminal-justice reform organization he launched in 2015, met with then-President Trump and Kushner (whose father had spent 14 months in prison for tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions) to discuss a criminal-justice reform bill. #Cut50 was joined in the effort by Kardashian, who has aspirations for a legal career, later that year. The First Step Act, a criminal-justice reform bill that the New York Times said would bring “the most substantial changes in a generation” to sentencing laws, passed in 2018. Roc Nation declined Variety‘s requests for further comment and an interview with Jones.
Perez’s pardon took many by surprise and also spurred some questions related to the Roc Nation roster, namely: did efforts to obtain the Presidential favor explain why so few Roc Nation artists campaigned on behalf of the Democratic ticket, both in the Presidential race and in Georgia, where two Senate seats were hotly contested? While Alicia Keys and Megan Thee Stallion showed support on social media and through other organizations, their participation hardly compared to appearances Beyonce and Jay-Z made on behalf of the Obama-Biden ticket. While the number of voters who might be swayed by celebrity endorsements might not seem overly significant, in a race that both sides knew was likely to be decided by razor-thin margins in many districts and states, Republicans knew that every vote they could keep out of the other side’s camp was important. A source close to the situation stressed that Roc Nation does not impose itself in its artists’ political involvement.
However, one source familiar with Perez and the former administration wouldn’t blame Roc Nation for playing it safe. “As anyone who’s worked with the Trump White House knows, you can’t piss him off or he will take revenge.”
Why is a pardon important for Perez, who’s already reached the upper ranks in the business? Insiders point to global ambitions for the executive, who was promoted from COO to CEO of Roc Nation in Dec. 2019, as well as the company’s ambitions to move into businesses like cannabis — Jay-Z recently launched a brand called Monogram — and spirits. “As a convicted felon, there are certain things you can’t do, like run a public company,” offers the source. “That may have been holding [Roc Nation] back.”
Gene Maddaus contributed reporting to this article.