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Clinton Aides Say He Ignored Their Advice on Rich Pardon

Clemency: Advisors tell House panel they were stunned by his decision. Chairman says dealer Vignali lied about arrests.

March 02, 2001|STEPHEN BRAUN and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton granted some of his most controversial clemencies over the objections of his closest advisors and despite evidence that one applicant, Los Angeles cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali, had been untruthful in his application, a congressional hearing revealed Thursday.

Testifying publicly for the first time, three high-ranking Clinton administration aides told the House Government Reform Committee that they urged the former president to deny the pardon requests of fugitive commodities broker Marc Rich and his partner, Pincus Green.

"In my judgment, the fact that they were fugitives was the beginning and the end of the discussion," said Bruce Lindsey, a former deputy White House counsel and longtime Clinton advisor. "For the president, that was a factor, but not the beginning and the end."

Lindsey, John Podesta, who was Clinton's chief of staff, and Beth Nolan, former White House counsel, all said Thursday that they were stunned to learn that Clinton chose in the waning hours of his presidency to grant the Rich pardon.

"I had the sense he had accepted our judgment and that this wouldn't happen," Podesta said.

The Rich pardon, one of 177 clemencies Clinton granted on Jan. 20, is being investigated by two congressional committees and a federal grand jury in New York.

All of the investigations center on the question of whether the Rich pardon was, in effect, bought with large political contributions. All three former aides and several Democratic committee members, including ranking member Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), disputed that notion Thursday. The aides said they could not recall any discussions of the Rich pardon in connection with donations to Democratic causes or the Clinton presidential library.

The committee also wanted to question Democratic fund-raiser Beth Dozoretz along those lines. But Dozoretz, a supporter of clemency for the former husband of her friend Denise Rich who has pledged to raise $1 million for Clinton's library, twice refused to answer, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination and mentioning the federal probe of the Rich case.

On the Vignali commutation, congressional investigators and others who have reviewed his case said Thursday that his clemency application was misleading in its representation of his other run-ins with law enforcement. While Vignali listed two arrests, he omitted two others. He also failed to mention his onetime admission to authorities that he was a gang member.

Vignali was freed in January by Clinton after serving six years of a 15-year term for helping to finance a narcotics operation that funneled 800 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minnesota. Clinton commuted Vignali's sentence after a concerted campaign by Southern California officeholders and civic leaders and behind-the-scenes lobbying by Hugh Rodham, a Florida lawyer and Clinton's brother-in-law.

Rodham acknowledged through an attorney's letter to the committee Thursday that Vignali's wealthy businessman father, Horacio, paid him $204,280 for his efforts.

"We learned that Carlos Vignali, the cocaine dealer, who paid Hugh Rodham, lied on his pardon application," House committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said at the start of the often-contentious seven-hour hearing. "He lied about his prior offenses, and he still got a pardon."

Burton was referring to Vignali's omission of two previous arrests--one in 1988 for reckless driving and one in 1990 for domestic abuse. He was not convicted in those cases.

The new revelation about the Vignali case is significant because it suggests that Clinton decided to release him from prison even though White House officials knew he had been untruthful. Lindsey and other aides said Thursday that the extent of misrepresentations about the Vignali case was unclear and vastly outweighed by appeals from leaders ranging from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Lindsey, who testified that he was initially opposed to Vignali's release, said, "I decided that given the community support, that in the county in which he would live, if they were not concerned about him coming back," a commutation for him might be acceptable. Lindsey said the president was also impressed by the community leaders' interest in Vignali's case.

Lindsey said that he had recalled seeing evidence of prior arrests in Vignali's application when it was forwarded to the White House from the pardon attorney's office early this year.

Congressional investigators and others familiar with the Vignali case said his clemency application did list his two 1989 arrests for "unruly conduct," at least one of which resulted in a conviction.

But Vignali's failure to admit all of his arrests--and that he had once told law enforcement authorities that he was an "admitted" member of a West Covina gang--was seen by the Justice Department as strong evidence that he had not been entirely truthful in his plea for freedom.

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