‘Tiger King’ Star Sues Justice Department Over Pardon Rejection

In this Aug. 28, 2013, file photo, the late Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, answers a question during an interview at the zoo he runs in Wynnewood, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) — Imprisoned “Tiger King” docuseries star Joe Exotic sued the Justice Department Wednesday, disputing a rejection of his pardon application because it was not presented directly to President Donald Trump.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 57, sued the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney in federal court in Fort Worth. He is currently an inmate at the nearby Federal Medical Center Fort Worth. 

He was convicted in 2019 on two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. 

Exotic was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for trying to hire a hitman for $10,000 to kill rival tiger enthusiast and “Tiger King” co-star Carole Baskin.

Exotic claims his pardon application was rejected by Acting Pardon Attorney Rosalind Sargent-Burns two days after it was filed in September. He disputes her determination that the rejection is final and wants the court to compel her office to present the pardon with a recommendation to Trump.

“Although the email conceded that the President had the ultimate authority to make a decision on the pardon, the email nevertheless implied that the Office of the Pardon Attorney was not sending the recommendation to the President and instead was usurping the role of final decision maker on the pardon,” the six-page complaint states.

Exotic says his attorneys responded that the office is required under federal regulations to forward the pardon application to the president for him to decide.

“In response to this reminder, William Taylor, with the US Pardon Attorney Office, acknowledged the President’s plenary power,” the complaint states. “However, the US Pardon Attorney Office has yet to forward the pardon with a recommendation to the president.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday morning.

Exotic’s lawsuit comes eight months after Trump joked at a White House Covid-19 briefing that he would “take a look” at pardoning him. A reporter had asked Trump about comments his son, Donald Trump Jr., had made about the hit Netflix show.

“Do you think he did it? Are you on his side,” Trump asked with a smile. “I’ll take a look at it. That’s Joe Exotic.”

“Tiger King” was a hit for Netflix during the early months of the pandemic, as over 34 million unique viewers streamed the show in the 10 days since its launch in March. 

The show follows several of the eccentric personalities in the tiger enthusiast community and focuses on Exotic’s obsessive behavior towards rival Baskin after he entered into a $1 million settlement in a trademark case she filed against him. 

Exotic has repeatedly accused Baskin of playing a role in the disappearance of her husband, suggesting she fed his body to her tigers to take over his assets.

Trump Jr. had professed his love for the show during an April interview on SiriusXM, saying it took him “two sittings” to finish the series.

“When they say ‘We are putting this guy away for 30 years,’ it seems aggressive,” he said. “Because of coronavirus, Riker’s Island — these liberal places — they’re releasing pedophiles, they are releasing child rapists because they are worried they have some pre-existing condition and then they get coronavirus in jail and get in trouble. I don’t know, guys. I kind of want to leave the child rapist in prison.”

Exotic himself was transferred to FMC Fort Worth in March as a precaution after the Oklahoma county jail he was being kept in had a Covid-19 outbreak.

Baskin seems to have gotten the last laugh, as a federal judge awarded her control of Exotic’s former zoo property in June to satisfy her trademark judgment. 

U.S. District Judge Scott Palk ruled the 16.4-acre Wynnewood property was fraudulently transferred from Exotic to his mother to keep it away from Baskin.

“Big Cat Rescue’s constructive trust and equitable lien in and to the buildings shall survive any physical or title transfer of the building and shall follow any proceeds, except as to a good faith purchased for value,” Palk ordered at the time.

Exotic has kept himself busy while behind bars, serving as his own attorney in filing a $93 million lawsuit in March against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Interior and several of his perceived enemies. Exotic claims a vast conspiracy exists to take his animals away from him.

Exotic is represented in Wednesday’s lawsuit by Francisco Hernandez in Fort Worth.

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