“It’s a creative and aggressive move,” one legal expert says. “But the pardon attorney has no obligation that I know of to do this — and even if they did, I don’t know that it would do Joe Exotic any good anyway.”

By Eric Todisco and Sean Neumann
December 22, 2020 10:03 AM
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President Donald Trump (left) and Joe Exotic
| Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty; NETFLIX

Tiger King star Joseph Maldonado-Passage (better known as Joe Exotic) is suing the Department of Justice in his latest attempt to receive a presidential pardon from Donald Trump after he was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot.

According to a six-page complaint filed by Maldonado-Passage's lawyer on Wednesday, the disgraced zookeeper, 57, is demanding that the DOJ make a recommendation about his pardon request to the president, 74.

In the filing, reviewed by PEOPLE, Maldonado-Passage's attorney argues against the Office of the Pardon Attorney's decision in September to reject the Netflix star's application for pardon without sending it to Trump. (Deadline was first to report the complaint.)

The office typically makes recommendations for a president on possible pardons, though that is not legally necessary: A president can pardon any federal convict on his own.

A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit but pointed to the department’s guidelines, which “require a petitioner to wait a period of at least five years after conviction or release from confinement (whichever is later) before filing a pardon application.”

Maldonado-Passage is currently serving the first year of a 22-year prison sentence for plotting to kill his nemesis, animal rights activist Carole Baskin, among other charges.

He had sought a waiver from the requirement that he be out of prison before asking for the Office of the Pardon Attorney to weigh in on his case.

But, according to his lawyer, Acting Pardon Attorney Rosalind Sargent-Burns said on Sept. 10 that Maldonado-Passage's request for waiver was being denied.

“A denial like this is usually the end of the line for a request through the pardon attorney’s office,” says Dr. Jeffrey Crouch, an American University professor and the author of The Presidential Pardon Power.

Nevertheless, Maldonado-Passage accused Sargent-Burns of not fulfilling her administrative duty by passing along a recommendation, whether it was in favor of or against a pardon.

“It’s a creative and aggressive move,” Crouch tells PEOPLE. “But the pardon attorney has no obligation that I know of to do this — and even if they did, I don’t know that it would do Joe Exotic any good anyway.”

One things seems to have changed.

The judge in the case ruled Monday that "a review of the public record appears to reveal that Exotic’s pardon application has now been accepted and is currently pending on the Department of Justice’s website."

But, the judge said, this makes Maldonado-Passage's claim before the court "moot" unless he can show "a case or controversy still exists."

The judge ordered Maldonado-Passage to either revise his complaint by next week or ask for it to be dismissed, given that his pardon application appears to have been accepted for review.

The judge also told Maldonado-Passage's lawyer, Francisco Hernandez, to resubmit an amended version of the lawsuit by Wednesday because the attorney had cited hyperlinks in the initial court filing — "which is inappropriate," the judge wrote. (Hernandez did not respond to a request for comment.)

Joe Exotic
| Credit: Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman/Imagn/USA Today Network/Sipa

No hearing has been set in the matter and the DOJ has not filed a response, records show.

Maldonado-Passage has pleaded with Trump before and made a lengthy Facebook post in March asking the president to "do the right thing" and "have this looked into."

Maldonado-Passage most recently lobbied for a presidential pardon in September, when he wrote a lengthy letter to Trump in which he claimed that he has been sexually abused in prison, TMZ reported at the time.

In the reportedly 257-page letter, Maldonado-Passage — who is being held at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas — said he has been abused to the point that his hands were damaged and claimed he had been sexually assaulted by prison guards.

A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons told PEOPLE in a statement that month, "There was no such assault."

Elsewhere in the memo to the White House, Maldonado-Passage wrote to Trump, according to TMZ: "Allow me to make you proud, to make America proud, to make the world proud. Be my hero please."

Joe Exotic
| Credit: Netflix

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Trump jokingly said he would “take a look” at Maldonado-Passage's case when he was asked about it during a press briefing in April, though Trump added then, “I know nothing about it,” and he pressed reporters for more details about his conviction.

The question came about after Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, joked about his dad giving Maldonado-Passage a pardon during an interview on SiriusXM radio.

“I can generally be for this just for the meme,” Don Jr. said. “And just for frankly watching the media reaction to this thing.”