Tom Ledford rarely answers a call from a unfamiliar area code, so he isn’t sure what made him pick up Monday when he saw a number he didn’t recognize.
“I thought it was a joke,” Ledford said, when a woman from the Department of Justice told him President Barack Obama had just signed his presidential pardon.
But it wasn’t a joke, and the reality of no longer being a federal felon is still sinking in for Ledford. He’s spent the last 16 years struggling because of the gambling conviction.
“It’s impossible to get a job” as a felon, he said.
Prior to the conviction, Ledford worked for a man who owned poker machines and was the front man for the business. It was one of those things law enforcement overlooked because most places that had the machines used the proceeds for community needs.
That all came crashing down in the early 1990s when a federal investigation targeted Ledford and his boss. He ultimately testified to a federal grand jury and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit gambling.
He paid a $50 fine and served one year on probation.
But putting it behind him wasn’t easy because no one wanted to hire a felon. He got a break when Ray Hensley hired him as a construction laborer, which led to Ledford starting his own construction and handyman business.
A shoulder injury several years ago ended Ledford’s self-employment and he was back to searching for work, but always dreading to have to check “yes” on the application where it asks about a felony conviction.
Eventually, Ledford found a couple more people who were willing to take a chance with him. Denny Reiter hired Ledford to work at Greene Valley Developmental Center, first in the laundry, then later designing and building mobility and therapeutic equipment for people with physical disabilities.
In that capacity, at the Assistive Technology Center, Ledford works for Robyn Carter, another person who was willing to give him a chance regardless of the conviction.
“I love these people because of that,” Ledford said. “I’ll always admire strong people who aren’t afraid to take a chance. I’ve known so few of them.”
Ledford said he had settled into the reality of life being harder because of the conviction and it wasn’t until his first granddaughter was born that he and his wife, Saundra, began discussing a pardon.
The process consisted of gathering paperwork from the legal case, filling out a pardon application and obtaining reference letters.
In the application, Ledford had to write a statement about why he wanted the pardon.
Part of that statement says, “I would like for my children and my children’s children to see me for the man I try so hard to be. To remove the stain of youthful ignorance and desperation would restore to me, and even more so to my family, the one thing that I sincerely yearn to have — my honor.”
And then, the wait started. Ledford said he told everyone around him that he wanted no further intervention in the process.
“I knew if God wanted me to have the pardon, it would happen,” he said.
Three years later, Ledford got the call he never thought would come. Ledford is reserved about how he feels about the pardon. He’s certainly grateful, but he also knows it puts a big responsibility on him.
“Now I’ve got to be really careful I don’t do anything,” to disappoint his country, he said.
And he hopes his story — which he was reluctant to share — will encourage people to look beyond a person’s mistakes and give them a chance to make themselves better. He also hopes anyone who is in a similar situation as he was will be encouraged to better themselves and even seek their own pardon, if necessary.
Ledford said he is happier in his job now that with any job he’s ever had. Now, he’s able to create something that helps make another person’s life better.
That, he said, means as much to him as the pardon. “If I can help this place, and someone will forgive someone else,” then he’s accomplished something in his life, he said.
The pardon does give Ledford a few freedoms back. He can now vote, he can own a firearm and he can get a passport.
“I am very thankful for it,” he said, but said the work he’s doing now “is way more exciting than me getting a pardon.”