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L.A. Leaders’ Support Cited in Decision to Free Vignali

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first formal explanation of the matter, the chief of staff to former President Clinton said Sunday that convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali was released from prison because of intervention by a “broad range” of influential Los Angeles community leaders--singling out U.S. Atty. Alejandro N. Mayorkas and Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

And Clinton, while not directly defending his commutation for the son of Horacio Vignali, a wealthy Los Angeles political contributor, said he was disturbed generally over lengthy sentences for first-time drug offenders. “I felt that they had served long enough.”

Also Sunday, three Republican attorneys Clinton claimed had “reviewed and advocated” a presidential pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich sharply denied the former president’s statement. Later, a former spokesman for Clinton said he had meant to imply only that the attorneys had reviewed the case, and not the merits of the pardon itself.

Clinton’s last-minute pardons and commutations of Jan. 20 continue to raise questions about whether any of the 176 acts of clemency were granted in return for political or personal favors. Two congressional committees are holding hearings into the case of Rich, who was wanted for tax evasion, dodging price controls and trading with the enemy during the Iran hostage crisis.

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Some, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Clinton’s defense of Rich’s pardon--made Sunday in a guest opinion piece in the New York Times--did not go far enough. The former president should testify on Capitol Hill, Specter said.

“The American people want to know why one of the most wanted fugitives in the world was granted a pardon,” Specter said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “This editorial doesn’t explain it.”

In the Vignali case, former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta for the first time confirmed that it was Mayorkas, the U.S. attorney for Southern California, who supported the commutation. Earlier, former Clinton officials had said that Clinton had released the drug dealer, after six years of a 15-year prison term, because of a letter of support from a federal prosecutor, who was not named.

Federal prosecutors in Minneapolis, where Vignali was convicted, said they wrote the Justice Department strongly opposing commutation.

The Minneapolis prosecutors said Mayorkas had twice called them asking questions about the case.

On Sunday, Podesta was asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the Vignali case, in which 800 pounds of cocaine was shipped from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, and about how Vignali’s father had donated $166,000 to California politicians, mostly Democrats.

Clinton’s decision to commute the sentence, Podesta said, was made “with support from a broad range of people in Los Angeles, including, at the time, the U.S. attorney.”

Mayorkas, who has steadfastly declined to comment on the Vignali matter, would not budge Sunday. “I can’t comment on it,” he said.

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Numerous California elected officials and others wrote letters seeking consideration of Vignali’s case, if not outright commutation. They included Mahony, two leading mayoral candidates, former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and former U.S. Rep. Esteban E. Torres.

A letter from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca urged only that prison officials move Vignali to a prison closer to Los Angeles, which was done.

After some of the letters were detailed in The Times, Mahony apologized, saying he had broken his policy of writing on behalf of someone he did not know.

Podesta pointed out that Clinton did not know Jan. 20 that Mahony would later regret his support of Vignali. He noted that “the cardinal has retracted it after The L.A. Times has criticized” the commutation.

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Clinton has not directly explained the Vignali commutation. But in his guest editorial, he discussed reasons for granting relief to a number of drug defendants.

“Some had been sentenced pursuant to mandatory-sentencing drug laws, and I felt that they had served long enough,” he wrote, “given the particular circumstances of the individual cases.”

“Many of these were first-time nonviolent offenders with no previous criminal records; in some cases, co-defendants had received significantly shorter sentences.”

Vignali was a first-time offender when he was convicted in 1995. But prosecutors in Minnesota, as well as the sentencing judge there, defended his 15-year prison term and described Vignali as having a central role in the drug conspiracy.

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Clinton, in his editorial, defended the pardons for Rich and his collaborator, Pincus Green.

He wrote that “the case for the pardons was reviewed and advocated” by former White House counsel Jack Quinn, as well as three Republican attorneys--Lewis Libby, now Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff; Leonard Garment, a former Nixon White House official; and William Bradford Reynolds, a Justice Department official under President Reagan.

Quinn, who is Rich’s attorney, tapped the attorneys to help make his case for a pardon.

On Sunday, all three denied Clinton’s statement.

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“The assertion that Mr. Libby had anything to do with President Clinton’s pardon is nonsense,” said Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokeswoman for Cheney. She added that, while Libby had represented Rich, their attorney-client association ended at least by last spring.

Reynolds, a Washington lawyer who represented Rich in the early 1990s, said of Clinton’s assertions: “I was astounded. I have had no communications with the Clinton administration or the president or Jack Quinn having to do with the effort to obtain the pardon at any time.”

Garment could not be reached for comment. But he was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “It is absolutely false that I knew about and endorsed the idea of a pardon.”

Former White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Clinton’s editorial was submitted Friday to meet a Times deadline. He said Clinton afterward noticed that the reference to the three Republicans was “a very poorly worded sentence” and changed it for the paper’s second edition.

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Rather than saying “the pardons” were reviewed and advocated by the Republican attorneys, the new phrase said that “the case for” the pardons was reviewed and advocated.

“It was their legal analysis and their tax analysis that formed the foundation for the pardons,” Lockhart said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“It is incorrect to say that they were part of the pardon application. That is something Jack Quinn did. But it was all of their work that persuaded the president that he ought to grant the pardons.”

Lockhart added: “We shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that somehow there is a political scandal here,” he said. “It’s a judgment the president made.”

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Podesta added that Clinton had been advised by Quinn that the GOP attorneys believed the Rich case should have been brought as a civil matter, not as a criminal indictment. He said that the government still could pursue Rich for civil penalties. Clinton, he said, “thought it was the right thing to do and it was in the interests of justice to put this back in the civil track.”


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