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2 City Leaders Say They Regret Helping Dealer

Clemency: Cardinal Mahony and politician Villaraigosa say they shouldn't have written on behalf of a cocaine convict they had never even met.

February 13, 2001|MATEA GOLD and LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said Monday that they regretted writing letters in support of a Los Angeles cocaine dealer whose sentence was commuted on President Clinton's last day in office.

Clinton's commutation of Carlos Vignali's 15-year federal prison sentence for his role in a multi-state cocaine ring was detailed Sunday in The Times. On Monday, The Times disclosed that Mahony and several local political figures, including two mayoral candidates, had lobbied for the presidential gesture.

"I was approached about the possibility of writing a letter to former President Bill Clinton on behalf of Mr. Carlos Vignali Jr.," Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, said in a statement. "The purpose of the letter was to seek a further review of the facts, the law and the processes used in his case. I made it clear that I was incapable of making a judgment about his guilt or innocence.

"Regardless of the merits of the case, I made a serious mistake in writing to the president and I broke my decades-long practice of never sending a letter on behalf of any person whom I did not know personally. I apologize for not following my own principles in this matter," Mahony said. The archbishop did not say in the statement who approached him. He did not return telephone calls seeking clarification.

Villaraigosa, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles, said he believes that he also erred when he sent a similar letter five years ago on behalf of Vignali, whose father, Horacio, donated more than $160,000 to state and federal officeholders after his son was incarcerated.

"I wrote that letter without talking to prosecutors on the other end," Villaraigosa said in an interview. "I shouldn't have done that. I went with my heart as a father and not with my head."

In addition to Villaraigosa and Mahony, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and former Democratic Rep. Esteban Torres of Pico Rivera sent letters to the White House on Vignali's behalf.

Many of the letters, some written as early as 1996 and others sent last year, suggested that Vignali was wrongly convicted and that his case deserved a careful review by the White House. That view conflicted sharply with the position of federal law enforcement authorities, who insisted that Vignali deserved his sentence for his central role in the narcotics operation that stretched from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, delivering more than 800 pounds of cocaine.

Vignali was freed from prison on Jan. 20--the day George W. Bush assumed the presidency--after serving six years.

Becerra--a mayoral candidate who received more than $3,500 in campaign contributions from Vignali family members for the mayor's race--said he wrote the letters to urge the White House to make sure that justice had been served in the Vignali case. He said he never explicitly asked Clinton to commute the man's sentence--though he did call the White House on Jan. 19, during Clinton's last hours in office, to see where the case stood. He also called the Justice Department, he said.

"Knowing that justice is not yet blind to color in America and with time running out for the review of the Vignali case, I added my voice to that of other community leaders . . . asking for a review of the case," Becerra said.

Both Becerra and Villaraigosa said they were asked by Vignali's father to write the letters. The father told The Times last week that he had asked no one to work on behalf of his son.

"It was a conversation between fathers as much as anything," said Villaraigosa, who described the father as a close friend. "He was very distraught. . . . I wasn't writing for a pardon, I was writing for them to review the matter."

Villaraigosa insisted that his efforts had nothing to do with the $2,795 Vignali had donated to his past campaigns.

He said he had not done anything else on Vignali's behalf since writing his letter in 1996. He said that, after reading the reports in The Times about the case, he believes that he misunderstood the younger Vignali's role in the drug ring.

"I understood that it was a much more benign, minor role," he said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, meanwhile, released a statement Monday underscoring that he had never asked for Vignali's release from prison.

In 1996, Baca--then a chief in the department--wrote to the U.S. probation office in Minnesota asking that Vignali be transferred to a prison closer to Los Angeles, so his family could visit him more often.

Horacio Vignali contributed $5,000 to Baca in July 1994, according to campaign disclosure statements. Four years later, the elder Vignali gave Baca $5,000 for his primary campaign for sheriff and $1,000 for the general election, which he won.

"The Vignali family [is] very fearful of the inmate population peer influence on their son and believe that frequent visits to him will enable them to better monitor his progress in serving his debt to society," Baca wrote in his letter to the probation office.

Vignali eventually was transferred from the Federal Correctional Institute in Florence, Colo., to a federal prison in southeastern Arizona, where he was held until he was ordered released by Clinton.

Baca did not return telephone calls seeking comment Monday. In a written statement, the sheriff said that convicts should serve their "full and complete" sentences.

"At no time did then-Chief Baca request a pardon or commutation of sentence for Mr. Vignali," the statement said.

"The request . . . was intended to allow the family a better opportunity to visit with their son and reduce the hardship of traveling long distances," Baca said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'A Serious Mistake'

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony wrote to the White House in 1996 asking for a review of the facts of Carlos Vignali's case "to determine if justice has been achieved." Tuesday, he released a statement calling that letter a mistake.

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Times staff writers Beth Shuster and Tina Daunt contributed to this story.

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