Federal agents for more than 20 years suspected that a wealthy Los Angeles businessman, who recruited top Southern California law enforcement officials to persuade President Clinton to free his cocaine-dealing son, was involved in drug trafficking.
Horacio Vignali gained national attention last year as the dedicated father who successfully enlisted Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, former U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas and a host of elected officials in a longshot bid to win the early release of his son. Clinton eventually freed Carlos Vignali, who had served six years of a 15-year sentence for dealing kilos of cocaine.
A congressional inquiry into pardons and commutations granted by Clinton on his last day in office turned up confidential federal law enforcement reports containing unproven allegations that the elder Vignali also was in the cocaine business. One informant told the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that Vignali was his son's supplier.
The allegations, drawn from raw investigative files and based largely on statements by informants, have never been strong enough to yield a criminal charge against Horacio Vignali.
Yet the report raises pointed questions about whether local law enforcement leaders should have checked Vignali's background before describing him to the White House as a man of the highest integrity.
In the drug trial of his son, Carlos, prosecutors said the defendant showed no interest in making a deal for a lesser prison term by revealing who supplied him with the cocaine and instead went to trial despite strong evidence against him.
Todd Jones, the former U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, where the young Vignali was prosecuted, said investigators and prosecutors suspected "he did not want to snitch on his dad" or someone else very close to him.
"That's just logic," Jones said. "We knew it [the drug conspiracy] did not end with this 21-year-old kid, so obviously there was someone close to him that he was extremely loyal to and that he was willing to go to prison for, for a long time."
While emphasizing the unproven nature of the allegations in DEA files, the House Committee on Government Reform nonetheless cited them this month in a report critical of Southern California politicians and the two law enforcement leaders who helped Vignali persuade Clinton.
The committee said Baca and Mayorkas would have had access to law enforcement files and should have checked them.
Mayorkas: 'I Made a Mistake'
Mayorkas, a Clinton appointee now in private practice, said the committee's criticism is fair. He said he did not know the elder Vignali very well.
"It is reasonable to expect that someone in my position would do his or her due diligence to learn that information," he said. "I made a mistake."
Baca disagreed. He said in an interview that it is not reasonable to expect him to check the backgrounds of everyone he deals with, including campaign fund-raisers and friends such as Vignali. He disputed that information, such as the mentions of Vignali buried in law enforcement files, would have been readily available to him even if he had tried to check.
Both men said they would not have provided references if they had been aware of the allegations.
References to Horacio Vignali and his longtime business partner in law enforcement files appear to be based mainly on statements by criminals--drug dealers and, in one case involving the partner, statements by a killer for hire. They gave information to police after they were caught.
Although the congressional committee cited allegations only from DEA files, Southern California-based investigators at other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies also mention Horatio Vignali in connection with drug trafficking in their reports, The Times found.
Horacio Vignali and his partner are mentioned together in files of the FBI, the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and the criminal investigation division of the Internal Revenue Service. A letter sent in 1994 from an IRS criminal investigator in Minnesota, where Carlos Vignali was indicted for supplying cocaine to a Midwest ring, to an IRS agent in Los Angeles referred to the elder Vignali as "a known drug dealer."
Files maintained by six more federal and California police agencies contain allegations that Vignali's partner, Los Angeles supermarket owner George Torres, had links to the illegal narcotics trade. Torres also is mentioned in the DEA reports cited by the congressional committee, but there were no criminal charges filed against him.
Horacio Vignali, through his attorney, declined to comment.
Torres, through his attorney, declined an interview but denied involvement with illegal drugs.