They were, in the never-ending story of Michael Liberty, the best of times.

It was the summer of 1989. Liberty, not yet even 30, stood atop a profile in Yankee Magazine that chronicled his meteoric rise from hapless teenager and owner of a sandwich shop in Gray to real estate developer the likes of which Maine had never seen.

One person in the story called him “Donald Trump with a Maine accent.” In another passage, his team having just lost the championship game in a local men’s basketball league, Liberty marveled at how well he was taking the defeat. “Hey, that must be one sign of getting older,” he said. “I’m learning to lose with grace.”

Or, more recently, he’s learned how to lose with connections.

Heads turned all over Maine on Wednesday when Donald Trump released his final raft of presidential pardons and right there, 15 names below the infamous Stephen Bannon, was “Michael A. Liberty.”

The full and unconditional pardon bookends a professional life that in 1985 saw Liberty named by another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, as one of the “Outstanding Young Men of America.”

It’s not yet clear how the pardon will play out for Liberty, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in federal prison in 2017 for illegal contributions to the 2012 presidential campaign of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. Liberty is slated to go to trial this September on federal charges of wire fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with Mozido, a business he founded in Texas that was supposed to bring banking services to people worldwide via their cellphones.

Never heard of it? That might be because Liberty is accused of diverting millions in individual investments in the company to support what federal regulators called his “lavish lifestyle” at his current home in Windermere, Florida. In addition to the criminal charges, which presumably will now be dismissed, Liberty still faces a civil case, based on the same allegations, brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Liberty declined an interview request last week through his Portland lawyer, Thimi Mina. Among the questions I wanted to ask him were, “How did you do it? How does a guy with humble beginnings in Maine, whose career careened over decades from dizzying accolades to flat-out demonization, end up being one of the 237 people pardoned by Trump over the past four years?”

I suspect there are two answers.

The first is money. As the New York Times reported last Sunday, would-be recipients of presidential pardons offered as much as $100,000 to Trump insiders who could – or at least claimed they could – get a petition for pardon to the Oval Office before the clock ran out on Jan. 20.

The second is access. Beyond that three-decade-old magazine piece, if you’re looking for a direct line between Michael Liberty and Donald Trump, you’ll inevitably come across Marc Kasowitz. The high-profile New York attorney served as Trump’s personal lawyer for a short time in 2017 and also represented him in everything from the former president’s bankruptcies to divorces and allegations of sexual misconduct.

Kasowitz, when he wasn’t backstopping Trump, also represented Liberty’s Mozido. And as of last spring, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office documents, Kasowitz’s firm still represented Fintiv, Mozido’s successor corporation, in a patent dispute with Apple. I emailed Kasowitz on Friday to ask what, if anything, he had to do with Liberty’s pardon. I got no response.

Bottom line, from Bill Clinton’s eyebrow-raising pardon of financier Marc Rich 20 years ago, to Trump’s 143 pardons and commutations last week alone, the equation is inescapable: When it comes to the presidential pardon, cash plus connections sometimes can keep you out of the federal slammer.

But beyond that, what does a presidential pardon, particularly from the only chief executive ever to be impeached twice, really mean?

Historically, a pardon often has been viewed as an acknowledgment that something about a particular case needed fixing. Maybe it was an unfairly harsh sentence, or an overzealous prosecution, or some humanitarian consideration like a terminal illness or a true changing of one’s ways.

By contrast, Trump’s notation that Liberty “is the father of seven children and has been involved in numerous philanthropic efforts” through his family foundation falls well short of that high bar. My parents had eight kids and, outside our Roman Catholic bubble, most people thought they were crazy.

As for the “philanthropic efforts,” the Liberty Family Foundation’s website opens with a welcome message that appears to be Latin but translates into gibberish. And the foundation’s specific accomplishments? The site mentions not a one.

How much time Trump spent on this stuff is at best questionable. In their book “After Trump, Reconstructing the Presidency,” Harvard Law School professors Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith analyzed the 36 pardons Trump had issued as of last July. Of those, only five – “the ones that lacked a personal connection to Trump” – went through normal vetting by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.

“Trump rarely used the pardon attorney process in the Justice Department,” they wrote. “Other presidents had sometimes skirted the pardon attorney. But Trump did so almost all the time.”

Meaning, if it’s public vindication Liberty was looking for in addition to a get-out-of-jail card, he was looking in all the wrong places.

Back to that Yankee profile, which extolled Liberty’s successes everywhere from Portland’s waterfront – until city voters short-circuited his proposed Long Wharf extravaganza with a five-year moratorium on waterfront development – to his development of twin office buildings at 100 Middle Street in Portland – now, ironically, the home of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine.

The Yankee story recalled a speech Liberty once gave to a throng of 800 admiring business people in Bangor. He’d come to sell them on the development potential of, you guessed it, Bangor.

“The guest speaker got a rousing five-minute standing ovation,” the article said.

Several nights later, it continued, Liberty was back in southern Maine inside a “posh ballroom” at a country club just outside Portland, where 300 movers and shakers had gathered to pay homage to the Liberty Group’s record sales year in 1988.

“My life is nice now, it’s simple,” Liberty told the Maine Sunday Telegram that night. “I have fun. I’m doing a lot of business, and I’m not reading about it. It’s fun to be respected.”

Until you’re not.

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