In the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton promised to use his clemency powers to help low-level drug offenders languishing in prison. When Carlos Vignali walked out of prison on Jan. 20 and returned home to his family in Los Angeles, he appeared to fit the broad outlines of that profile.
But the 30-year-old Vignali, who had served six years of a 15-year sentence for federal narcotics violations, fit another profile entirely. No small-time offender, he was the central player in a cocaine ring that stretched from California to Minnesota. Far from disadvantaged, he owned a $240,000 condominium in Encino and made his way as the son of affluent Los Angeles entrepreneur Horacio Vignali. The doting father became a large-scale political donor in the years after his son’s arrest, donating more than $160,000 to state and federal officeholders--including Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis--as he pressed for his son’s freedom.
The grateful father called the sudden commutation of his son’s sentence by Clinton “a Hail Mary and a miracle.”
The improbability that such a criminal would be granted presidential clemency, as well as the younger Vignali’s claim that he alone steered a pardon application that caught the president’s attention and won his approval, has sparked disbelief and outrage from nearly everyone involved in his case.
“It’s not plausible; it makes no sense at all,” said Margaret Love, the pardon attorney who oversaw all Justice Department reviews of presidential clemency applications from 1990 to 1997. “Somebody had to help him. There is no way that case could have possibly succeeded in the Department of Justice.”
Because it is a hard-edged criminal case, Vignali’s commutation adds another dimension to the wave of eleventh-hour Clinton clemencies and raises new questions about the influence of political donors and officials on different stages of the process.
As criminal justice authorities in Minnesota learned of Vignali’s sudden freedom, they reacted with the same indignation that has greeted several other beneficiaries of the 140 pardons and 36 commutations Clinton granted in his last hours as president.
The Vignali case also illustrates the secrecy that enshrouds the clemency process.
A federal prosecutor who had urged Justice Department superiors to reject clemency for Vignali demanded an official explanation--only to be denied information from his own department. The judge who sentenced Vignali is openly aghast at the decision, which was made without his knowledge. And they all--from defense attorneys to street detectives to former pardon attorney Love--scoffed that Vignali could have walked free without the intervention of politically connected helpers.
Key details of the case remain a mystery. Did political officials and other authoritative figures appeal for Vignali’s freedom to the president or high-ranking Justice Department officials? What action, if any, did the Justice Department recommend to the White House?
Vignali could not be reached for comment. But his father strongly denied that he or anyone else in the family asked politicians to press their case with Clinton.
“I didn’t write him a letter, I didn’t do anything,” Horacio Vignali said. “But I thank God, and I thank the president every day.”
For now, the Vignali case is a curious tale of how an inmate buried deep in the federal penal system won presidential help while others in more desperate straits remained behind.
“Go figure,” said an exasperated Craig Cascarano, the lawyer for one of Vignali’s 30 co-defendants, many of them poor and black. “How is it that Carlos Vignali is out eating a nice dinner while my client is still in prison eating bologna sandwiches?”
Clinton Concerned About Drug Sentences
Clinton and his White House staff have not fully explained why he granted certain clemencies, including the highly controversial pardon of fugitive commodities broker Marc Rich.
But in recent months, the president had expressed concern about mandatory federal sentences imposed on some small-time drug offenders.
“The sentences in many cases are too long for nonviolent offenders,” Clinton said in a November interview with Rolling Stone magazine. ". . . I think this whole thing needs to be reexamined.”
His comments prompted a flurry of last-minute clemency requests to the White House, said the former president’s spokesman, Jake Siewert, particularly since Clinton believed that Justice was not moving fast enough in making clemency recommendations to the White House.
“Most of the drug cases involved people with a sentence that the prosecutor or the sentencing judge felt was excessive,” Siewert said, “but were necessitated by mandatory-minimum guidelines.
“So in most of the drug cases, either a prosecutor or a sentencing judge or some advocate identified people who were relatively minor players or who had gotten a disproportionate sentence.”
Siewert, asked about cases such as Vignali’s, said he did not remember any specific cases but added: “We tried to make a judgment on the merits.”
Although Vignali family members themselves may not have tried to influence the process directly, others weighed in early on. After Carlos was convicted, and during the legal appeals process, Minnesota authorities were deluged with phone calls and letters from California political figures inquiring about the case and urging leniency, they said.
“There was a lot of influence, oh yes,” said Andrew Dunne, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Vignali in Minnesota. “We would receive periodic calls from state representatives in California calling on behalf of Carlos after the sentencing.
Dunne, who said he interpreted some of the more persistent calls as “perhaps improper influence,” said he could not remember whether the California politicians were based in Sacramento or Washington. But “they wanted to know: Is there anything that could be done to help reduce the sentence?”
Horacio Vignali said he did not know who made such calls and had “no idea why they did that.”
In a two-year investigation, state and federal law enforcement authorities used wiretaps and raids to break a drug ring that transported more than 800 pounds of cocaine from California to Minnesota, where it was converted to crack for sale on the street.
Detectives learned that Vignali, a rapper wannabe who called himself “C-Low,” played a central role in the enterprise. He provided the money to buy the cocaine in Los Angeles, where it was then shipped to Minnesota by mail.
Tony Adams, one of the police detectives who worked on the case, said Vignali “was making big money” from the ring. “Let me put it like this,” he said, citing wiretaps: “This kid went to Las Vegas and would lose $200,000 at Caesar’s Palace and it was no big deal.
“He had a condo in Encino worth over $240,000. And yet his tax records showed he was only making $30,000 at his dad’s auto body shop.”
Most of the defendants pleaded guilty and received prison sentences, but Vignali and two Minneapolis men went on trial.
The senior Vignali sat through the entire trial and at one point, according to Cascarano, testified as a character witness on his son’s behalf. In his statement, the lawyer said, Vignali alluded to his wealth by saying that he had spent $9 million on a palatial Southern California home that once belonged to actor Sylvester Stallone.
A jury convicted Carlos Vignali in 1994 on three counts: conspiring to manufacture, possess and distribute cocaine; aiding and abetting the use of a facility in interstate commerce with the intent to distribute cocaine; and aiding and abetting the use of communication facilities for the commission of felonies.
He drew a 15-year prison sentence and wound up as an inmate in the Federal Correctional Institution in Safford, Ariz.
Todd Hopson, one of the men tried with Vignali, was sentenced to more than 23 years, said his lawyer, Cascarano. The lawyer described Hopson as “an uneducated black kid with a noticeable stutter” and a middle-level figure whose role in the Minneapolis drug ring “was nothing compared to Vignali.”
But under mandatory federal guidelines, Hopson’s conviction required a stiffer sentence because he had been involved in converting the cocaine into rocks of crack, Cascarano said.
A Big Jump in Contributions
Political contribution records indicate that Horacio Vignali also apparently owned interests in used car lots and auto body shops in Los Angeles and Malibu. And, according to Cascarano and to media reports dating from the mid-1990s, Vignali also grew wealthy on commercial real estate interests that included a prime tract across from the Los Angeles Convention Center.
But when contacted by The Times, the father said only, “I run a taco stand and a parking lot.”
Through 1994, the year his son was convicted, Horacio Vignali made a few small federal and state campaign contributions, usually less than $1,000, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records. But in October 1994, just before the start of his son’s seven-week trial, Vignali stepped up his contributions, donating $53,000 to state officeholders.
By last year, he had become a large-scale contributor. Vignali has given at least $47,000 to Gov. Gray Davis. He gave $32,000 to former Gov. Pete Wilson during his last term. He made two $5,000 donations to a political action committee operated by Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). And last August, while the Democrats were holding their national convention in Los Angeles, he contributed $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
Asked about his donations, the senior Vignali said only, “I’m a Democrat.”
As he was becoming a major contributor, the senior Vignali also hired more attorneys to appeal his son’s conviction. But by 1996, he had exhausted the appeals process.
He then turned to Danny Davis, the Los Angeles lawyer who had helped represent the young man at trial, with another request: to pursue a presidential commutation for his son.
Davis declined, telling the father his chances were “like a snowball in Hades.” Davis criticized the political nature of the clemency process but suggested that the family was smart enough to realize that Clinton could be contacted through political channels.
Still, Davis said Carlos Vignali deserves credit for successfully handling his own application for clemency.
It is unclear when Carlos Vignali filed his application, but by February 1999, it would have seemed quite dead.
That was when Dunne received an inquiry from the Justice Department asking for a recommendation on the Vignali pardon application. Dunne and his boss, then-U.S. Atty. Todd Jones, wrote a scathing letter sharply opposing any break for Vignali.
They pointed out how deeply Vignali was involved in the drug ring and how he had never acknowledged responsibility or shown any remorse.
After sending the letter, Dunne said, “I never thought this had a chance of happening. As far as we were concerned, this was a dead issue.”
Jones also remembered being vehemently against a commutation. “I can’t tell you how strongly we registered our objection,” he said.
Love, the former pardon attorney, said that, without approval from prosecutors, any such clemency request usually is denied.
Told of Vignali’s freedom, she said: “What you’re telling me is absolutely mind-boggling.”
Vignali’s trial judge, U.S. District Judge David Doty, said he was not contacted by the Justice Department. Had he been, he said, he would have joined the prosecution in arguing against special treatment for Vignali.
Doty said Vignali never acknowledged his crime after his conviction nor showed any remorse.
“He was non-repentant,” the judge said. “Even after I sentenced him, he claimed he had been railroaded.”
However, Doty did write Clinton on behalf of drug defendants in two other cases, both involving disadvantaged individuals who had been subjected to harsh sentences for minor drug offenses.
Clinton commuted the sentences on his last day in office.
Doty said that those were worthwhile commutations--noting that both defendants were sorrowful and had completed most of their prison time.
The pardon attorney’s office refused to release any information about Vignali’s commutation to The Times.
Horacio Vignali said he learned that his son was out on Jan. 20, the day Clinton left the White House and George W. Bush became president. “My son called the house and he said, ‘They’re turning me loose! They’re turning me loose! I’m a free man! I’m a free man!’ ”
The father insisted that his son put together the pardon request with minimal help from Los Angeles attorney Don Re. (Re did not return phone calls for comment.)
Ron Meshbesher, a Minneapolis defense attorney who also represented the son during his trial, said that several days after the commutation the Vignalis called him at his office.
The son came on the line “all excited,” Meshbesher recalled. The stunned lawyer asked: “How’d you get out?” Vignali told him that the “word around prison was that it was the right time to approach the president.” The son insisted he had written the application himself.
In an interview with The Times, Horacio Vignali insisted that Clinton’s commutation was not payback for his Democratic Party contributions. He said that he met Clinton only once, in 1994, around the time of his son’s conviction. Vignali said he shook the president’s hand in a rope line at a fund-raiser.
Although he insisted that he had not orchestrated his son’s freedom, the senior Vignali conceded that others may have helped.
“I guess some people wrote on his behalf,” he said. “I have no idea who they are. I just don’t know.”
Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.