Hugh Rodham, the brother-in-law of former President Clinton, accepted about $400,000 to successfully push for presidential clemency for two Los Angeles men, convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali and Almon Glenn Braswell, a marketer of health treatments.
Rodham returned the money late Wednesday as Clinton released a brief statement saying that he and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), were "deeply disturbed" to learn of the arrangement. The statement urged Rodham to return the money.
Sources said that Rodham, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lawyer who is Sen. Clinton's brother, received $200,000 for making at least two calls to the White House and for other work on Vignali's behalf. Rodham also accepted a similar amount as a "success fee" for the pardon for Braswell.
While most individuals applying for presidential clemency hire lawyers to represent them, Rodham's role in the Vignali and Braswell cases was unusual because of its mystery and because a relative of the Clintons had been allowed to benefit financially.
Rodham's connection to the two men remains unclear.
Both acts of clemency, two of the 176 Clinton granted on his last day in office, have been widely criticized by law enforcement authorities. Vignali's release from prison was secured with the help of letters and phone calls from Southern California politicians and leaders.
In a related development Wednesday, officials of the Clinton White House told The Times that he granted the Vignali commutation about two weeks after the Justice Department formally recommended that it be denied.
Braswell's pardon for a 1983 conviction for perjury and mail fraud has been questioned because he is currently under investigation for tax evasion and money laundering.
The former president, in his written statement, said:
"Yesterday I became aware of press inquiries that Hugh Rodham received a contingency fee in connection with a pardon application for Glen Braswell and a fee for work on Carlos Vignali's commutation application.
"Neither Hillary nor I had any knowledge of such payments. We are deeply disturbed by these reports and have insisted that Hugh return any moneys received."
Bruce Lindsey, a top advisor to the former president, said Wednesday that Rodham called him twice in the final weeks of Clinton's presidency. Lindsey said that, while Rodham did not identify himself as officially representing Vignali, he did press for the commutation of his 15-year prison sentence.
"Basically what happened is that Hugh did contact us and did indicate an interest," Lindsey said in an interview. "We were aware he was interested in it. But nobody in the White House counsel's office knew whether it was for a client or the basis of it."
Lindsey added that Rodham never called him to press for the Braswell pardon.
Sen. Clinton Issues Statement
Sen. Clinton, in a separate statement, said:
"I was very disturbed to learn that my brother, Hugh Rodham, received fees in connection with two clemency applications. Hugh did not speak with me about these applications. I believe that the payments should be returned immediately, and I understand he has taken steps to do so."
Sources close to the senator said that "the first she heard about" Rodham's involvement was Monday night. They said that the former president first heard about Rodham's role Tuesday morning and that the couple then discussed the matter.
"They spoke about it," one source said of the couple, and both agreed that Rodham should return the money.
Rodham issued a statement through his Washington attorney, Nancy Luque. She said that he "today acceded to his family's request that he return legal fees earned in connection with pardon requests. Their request, presumably made because of the appearance of impropriety, is one he cannot ignore.
"There was, however, no impropriety in these matters."
In an interview with The Times, Luque emphasized that Rodham "did not speak to either Clinton about either [clemency request]. Ever."
A longtime advisor to the Clintons, who asked not to be named, said that the president knew of Rodham's involvement when he approved the clemencies.
"I'm told that the president knew and his statement by implication implies that he did know," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "What he has said in his statement is that he did not know that Hugh would be compensated."
The former president did not disclose which news organizations were inquiring about Rodham's role in the clemency process. The Times has been investigating the Vignali commutation for two weeks, reporting that several Los Angeles leaders wrote letters on his behalf at the request of his father, Horacio Vignali, a wealthy Los Angeles political donor.
Rodham failed to return numerous telephone calls from The Times, and on Monday and Tuesday, a Times reporter made repeated attempts to interview him at his office in Fort Lauderdale and at his home in Coral Gables, Fla.
Rodham Declines to Talk With Reporter
Although Rodham appeared to be at home and could be heard talking inside, he never opened the door. He also never answered his home phone. And at one point Tuesday, a Coral Gables police officer was summoned to the house.
As she arrived, the door opened and a woman appeared, gesturing toward the reporter. When the reporter approached, she hurriedly shut the door.
The officer explained that someone inside Rodham's apartment had complained about being "bothered." The people inside the apartment, the officer said, "don't want to talk to anybody."
In other developments Wednesday in the Vignali case:
* Officials said that the Justice Department's recommendation to deny the Vignali commutation was based on information about Vignali's central role in a conspiracy to ship nearly 800 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to a narcotics ring in Minneapolis.
Its recommendation also noted that, after six years in prison, Vignali remained unrepentant.
* Alejandro Mayorkas, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, commented for the first time about his role in the Vignali commutation request. He said that, because of urging from Vignali's father, he telephoned the White House counsel's office.
Mayorkas said he told White House attorneys that, while "I was not familiar with the facts of the case and that the United States attorney in Minnesota was against the commutation, that I was calling because I know the parents and I know them to be upstanding people."
He added: "I think that in hindsight I should not have made that call to the White House."
In addition to calls from Mayorkas, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca also phoned the White House counsel's office in support of the commutation for Vignali as the Clinton presidency was ending, a White House source said. Baca could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
* Many of the letters written on behalf of Carlos Vignali by Los Angeles area leaders were sent directly to the White House but were never shared with the Justice Department.
Under normal policy, the White House would be expected to forward all correspondence from such officials to the Justice Department for review.
It was also learned that at least two letters--one from Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and the other from Los Angeles Councilman Mike Hernandez--were sent to Horacio Vignali for his review before being sent on to Washington.
Lindsey, in describing his phone calls from Rodham, said that the president's brother-in-law talked to him as a friend and did not specify that he was legally representing Vignali. Lindsey said he did not tell the president about the calls.
In one call, Lindsey said, Rodham "was inquiring about a request that was pending about Carlos Vignali."
"I told him I didn't know anything about it. I told him I would try to find out about it.
"He told me a little bit about the facts as he knew it. He said he [Vignali] was a first-time offender, that he thought he was lending money to a friend [in the drug deals] and that he had no connection to Minneapolis."
Lindsey said, "I didn't have any impression one way or the other" about Rodham's motives. "I don't know if he knew him. We get calls all the time. If you had a friend and knew someone who had a pardon application, you would call me up. I don't know if you're calling as a friend or a paid representative."
But, Lindsey said, "he got through to me." Rodham described the case as the kind of drug conviction that the president thought was excessive, he said.
In another call, Lindsey said, Rodham suggested that the Minneapolis prosecutors "might be supportive of a commutation," and Lindsey said he had to correct Rodham on that score.
Mayorkas, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said Wednesday that he called the pardon attorney's office at the Justice Department "on behalf of the parents" of Carlos Vignali and asked whether it was "permissible" for him to call the White House. He said he was given the OK.
Mayorkas told The Times Wednesday that he has known Horacio Vignali for about two years "through various affairs in the community" and that he made the phone calls at the elder Vignali's request.
Mayorkas said he had never heard of Rodham's connection to the case but added that "it bothers me tremendously."
Law enforcement authorities in Minnesota, already outraged by Vignali's commutation, were further incensed when they learned of Rodham's involvement.
Tony Adams, the lead police detective on the mid-1990s investigation, said that Rodham "needs to do the rest of Carlos' time." He also expressed anger that Horacio Vignali had spent $360,000 to get his son out of prison--a reference to the $200,00 given to Rodham and $160,000 that the elder Vignali had contributed to officeholders' campaigns since his son's arrest in 1993.
Over the last two weeks, several sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Times that Rodham's name had surfaced in connection with Horacio Vignali's pursuit of a commutation for his son. It is not know how Rodham was paid, but Vignali often paid in cash.
Several calls to Vignali's office went unreturned Wednesday night, but in an earlier interview, he denied knowing anything about Rodham's role in the commutation lobbying.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who chairs the House Government Reform Committee and is investigating Clinton's pardon of fugitive commodities broker Marc Rich, said of the Braswell connection to Rodham: "This news is deeply troubling.
"We intend to look into this. We intend to ask Mr. Rodham to give us all the details of whom he represented and how much he was paid."
Burton sent out three letters late Wednesday--to Rodham and the two Vignalis--seeking information on how they sought the commutation and what kind of money was being paid or spent to secure the young man's release from prison.
Times staff writers Janet Hook and Alan C. Miller contributed to this story.