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COVER STORY

Working The American System

April 29, 2001|RICHARD A. SERRANO and STEPHEN BRAUN | Richard A. Serrano and Stephen Braun are staff writers in The Times' Washington bureau

On the day Carlos Vignali went to prison, he was already thinking about freedom. Led to a holding cell, the convicted cocaine dealer turned to a co-defendant. "My father's going to get me out," he said. It had the ring of a rich boy's boast. It also was true.

The American political system, warmed by money from Vignali's father, overturned the judicial system that had sent Carlos to prison in 1995. Horacio Vignali says President Clinton's pardon of his son in January is "a case where America worked." He called it a miracle. Perhaps it is. But if so, it's a miracle with a road map, one providing a cold look at the influence that money and connections play in the American system.

Horacio's campaign to free his son was straightforward, stoked with $160,000 in political donations over six years. His strategy was that of a pyramid scheme. He would persuade one public official to express sympathy for his son, then would use that statement to persuade a second, then cite both of those individuals to bring aboard a third.

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Horacio Vignali tapped into a network of Latino leaders, many of whom, as the campaign gathered steam, never verified Horacio's version of events: that his son was innocent and, even if guilty, had been punished too harshly. They also believed him when he claimed that his son had no criminal record before his arrest.

By the time the clock ticked down on Clinton's term, Horacio had secured help from, among others, two congressmen, two California Assembly speakers, the president's brother-in-law, a cardinal, the L.A. County sheriff, a Los Angeles County supervisor, a city councilman, and even the top federal law enforcement official in L.A.

When Clinton granted 177 acts of clemency in January, on his last morning as president, he was thinking of his legacy. The Vignali commutation, Clinton's aides say, was granted as a symbolic show of fairness to low-level narcotics felons languishing in prison, where members of Carlos' old cocaine crew are still serving time--and talking openly about Carlos' astonishing good fortune.

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Todd Hopson, a convicted drug dealer who heard Vignali's prediction of freedom in the holding cell, says Carlos was the source of the operation's cocaine shipments in 1993, and of the schemes and covert cellular phone calls that kept the money and dope flowing until their "good thing" came apart that December. Yet Carlos Vignali is free. "I didn't pay anybody," Hopson says. "I didn't have anybody walk my application up to the White House and put it in front of the president. I didn't have those connections."

Horacio sees it differently. He finds nothing wrong with singling out his son, now 29, for special treatment. Horacio was an Argentine immigrant who built a fortune in Los Angeles with his own hands, his own sweat and savvy. Money has always been a means in his world. It was an ethos any small merchant with the drive to succeed might appreciate. When it came to freeing Carlos, he applied the same ethos. Little wonder that to him, "This is a case where America worked."

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HORACIO VIGNALI IMMIGRATED TO THE U.S. IN 1962. HE WAS from an Argentinian-Italian family. His wife, Luz-Horacio, was from Puerto Rico. He called her Lucy as they Americanized. They were strivers. She had a hair salon; he started an auto body repair shop in 1970 in a commercial strip near the Los Angeles Convention Center. Through good fortune and smarts, he eventually built a business empire that diversified into body shops, parking lots, real estate and luxury cars.

As the Vignalis rose in the world, they moved from West Covina to Pacific Palisades. By the mid-1990s, they counted Tom Cruise and Whoopi Goldberg among their neighbors. Vignali closed his downtown auto yard on Figueroa as the city moved forward on the Staples Center, converting his lucrative land to parking lots for the convention center and the arena.

As with many entrepreneurs, his money and his business with the city brought him contacts with local public officials. He began donating small sums to political candidates. The contributions were a trickle at first, usually less than $1,000 each, but they swelled after Carlos' December 1993 drug arrest. In the weeks before Carlos' 1994 trial, for instance, Horacio donated $53,000 to various officeholders.

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