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Don't Lump Vignali Pardon With Others

February 18, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Ever since Horacio Vignali came on the local political scene a few years back, raising money and glad-handing for an array of Latino officeholders, he's told me that "someday, Frank, I'm going to give you a big story." His big story finally broke last week--although the negative reaction he's getting as a result is surely not what he bargained for.

Vignali is the pivotal figure in a still-brewing pardon scandal that reaches from Los Angeles City Hall to the Clinton White House. A successful businessman of Argentine descent, Vignali has not been shy about sharing his wealth with local Democratic politicians, donating more than $150,000 to the likes of Gov. Gray Davis, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and practically every Latino politician in town, including two leading mayoral candidates, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra.

No one who has covered politics locally the last few years could have helped but notice Vignali. As gregarious as he was generous, he became, within a short time, a big player in the small world of L.A.'s Latino political elite, holding fund-raisers and other political meetings at his downtown business site and at his home in Pacific Palisades.

This week, it became apparent Vignali's political largess was not completely altruistic. Amid the ongoing investigations into former President Clinton's last-minute pardons, it was learned that one of those granted clemency was Vignali's 30-year-old son Carlos, who was serving a 15-year federal prison term for conspiring to sell 800 pounds of cocaine.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 2001 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 9 Op Ed Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Vignali sentence--The status of Carlos Vignali's sentence was incorrectly stated in a commentary Sunday. It was commuted.

It turned out that the the younger Vignali's case came to the outgoing president's attention at least partly because of an all-star roster of L.A. civic leaders who supported the idea. Not just Becerra and Villaraigosa, but County Supervisor Gloria Molina, state Sen. Richard Polanco, Sheriff Lee Baca and even Cardinal Roger Mahony all wrote or called the White House on Vignali's behalf.

The way folks are reacting to the revelations you'd think Horacio Vignali had just duped Mahony and the others into petitioning the pope to canonize Al Capone. Let me suggest a different spin on the story.

Some of Clinton's last-minute pardons--especially the one he granted fugitive financier Marc Rich--do not pass the "smell test." The case of young Carlos Vignali does. In fact, a careful reading of The Times' reporting on the Vignali case could lead an open-minded reader to conclude that young Vignali's pardon was not only legitimate but appropriate. The portrait of Carlos Vignali that emerges from his 1994 trial transcripts is not that of a hard-core drug dealer who could pass muster with the killer cartels of Cali, Colombia, or Culiacan, Mexico.

Young Vignali, it appears instead, was a spoiled rich kid with too much time on his hands and too many rap music fantasies in his head. He was a drug-kingpin wannabe who helped finance a shipment of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minnesota, got caught along with 30 other suspects and was convicted in a fair and public trial. But, like many another nonviolent or first-time offenders caught up in this country's insane war on drugs, he got a sentence way out of proportion to his crime.

It was the harshness of Vignali's 15-year term that prodded his father to launch a quixotic campaign to have his son freed. And let it not be forgotten that, by the time he was sprung from federal prison, Carlos Vignali had spent six years in a federal penitentiary. He was paying his debt to society and was, by most accounts, a model prisoner. If only others in his situation also could get the same second chance he's getting.

Cardinal Mahony has issued a statement saying his letter on behalf of the Vignalis was a mistake. I respectfully disagree. If anyone in this big cast of characters should understand the need for forgiveness and the power it can have to redeem sinners, it is the leader of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

And Sheriff Baca's letter on Vignali's behalf was also right on. He wrote not to get young Vignali freed but to suggest that a transfer closer to Los Angeles might help with his rehabilitation, making it easier for the parents who so clearly loved him to visit more often. Isn't that the kind of creative flexibility we want from law enforcement pros like Baca?

The other politicos who got dragged into this mess really did no more than what hundreds of other pols have done for thousands of other rich or influential constituents, which is to ask for a review of the case. Only Villaraigosa got so carried away that he suggested Carlos Vignali might be innocent. And Villaraigosa admitted that, like the elder Vignali, he looked at the case with his heart, not his head.

As for Horacio Vignali, he told a Times reporter he is proud that he was able to use his clout with L.A. Latino elite to get them to rally on behalf of his son. I, for one, think he has every right to be proud. He may love young Carlos too uncritically, but he did what any father would do if he could. We can only hope young Carlos appreciates how many people put their reputations on the line so that he could start anew.

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