Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged for the first time Thursday that he spoke to the White House counsel's office about a convicted drug dealer in the waning days of the Clinton administration. But Baca denied that he ever supported the commutation of the felon's sentence.
Baca also disclosed that the president's brother-in-law Hugh Rodham asked him in a January telephone call if he would talk to the White House counsel's office about the case of the drug dealer, Carlos Vignali.
And he released a letter written to Clinton in December in support of Vignali's father, Horacio, who is Baca's friend and political supporter. Last week, Baca was vague about the details of that letter and was unable to provide it to The Times when asked. In addition, Baca said only that he gave the letter to the elder Vignali; he did not mention that it was addressed to the former president.
Last week, Baca acknowledged that he wrote a letter in 1996 to the U.S. probation department seeking the transfer of Carlos Vignali from a Colorado prison to one closer to his family in California.
Baca's disclosures Thursday shed new light on the sheriff's role in the Vignali case and raise questions about the actions of Los Angeles County's top law enforcement official.
Acknowledging that he returned a call from the White House counsel's office on behalf of the younger Vignali, Baca said "at no time" did he request a pardon or commutation for the drug dealer. Baca said he was first called by a White House attorney and that he returned that call. He didn't remember the attorney's name and did not initiate the exchange, he said.
It was disclosed earlier this week that Rodham was paid about $400,000 for attempting to secure the clemency of Carlos Vignali and another felon, but he returned the money Wednesday after controversy erupted. Former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), have denied previously knowing that Hugh Rodham was financially involved in the two cases.
"I was also specifically asked by the staff person [from the counsel's office] if the president should commute Mr. Vignali's son's sentence," Baca said in his statement. "I replied that I was not familiar with the facts of the case and it was a decision which only the president could make."
White House Source Tells Different Story
A White House source, however, has said that Baca called the White House counsel's office in support of the commutation. Vignali served almost seven years of a 15-year sentence before he was released on Jan. 20, the day Clinton left office.
The elder Vignali, who has donated funds to many local, state and national politicians, contributed $5,000 to Baca in 1994, according to campaign disclosure statements. Four years later, Vignali gave the sheriff $5,000 for the primary campaign and $1,000 for the general election.
Baca would not comment on the issue Thursday, the day he attended the burial of a sheriff's deputy who died last week in a motorcycle crash. Brandan Hinkle was the first deputy to die on duty during Baca's tenure as sheriff.
In an interview last week, Baca said he had never learned the facts of the Vignali case. "My position is if you commit the crime, you do the time," Baca said then. "I don't care what the offense is. The conviction is what it is."
He reiterated that view in his statement Thursday.
"I maintain and espouse a policy that those persons convicted of a crime should serve their full and complete sentence," Baca said.
The letter that Baca released Thursday was written in December to Clinton on behalf of the elder Vignali. He gave the following account:
Horacio Vignali asked him to write to the president in support of Carlos. Baca said he declined to do so but wrote a letter instead about the elder Vignali.
In that letter, Baca said: "I have known Mr. Vignali for many years and have witnessed his consistent support of law enforcement and especially the policing effort of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department."
But Vignali told Baca that he would not use the letter since he did not believe it would help his son, and Baca said he does not know if the message ever got to Clinton.
Even without knowing the facts of the case, Baca said he talked to Vignali about his son's case. Baca said he told him that law enforcement officials wouldn't go to such measures if they hadn't believed Vignali's son is guilty.
"I said, 'You've got to recognize your son is guilty,' " Baca said.
Analysts See Political Danger
Political analysts in Los Angeles suggested that the controversy poses some danger to Baca because, as sheriff, he is the county's top law enforcement official.
"Someone with law enforcement connections, it becomes more serious," said Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell. "I think it could be dangerous."
"Certainly, coming from the top cop in L.A. County, it raises, again, big questions about his judgment," said John Shallman, a political consultant who ran former Sheriff Sherman Block's campaign against Baca. "When you have people backing down, it suggests they did something they shouldn't have done. It becomes a slippery slope that you can never recover from."
Baca was hardly alone in speaking out on the Vignali case. Other politicians who wrote or called the White House on the Vignali matter in the waning days of the Clinton administration include Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, former Rep. Esteban Torres, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and state Sen. Richard Polanco.
Since the revelations, Mahony and Villaraigosa have said they erred in getting involved in the case.
Some political consultants said Baca should not be held to a higher standard simply because he is a law enforcement official. They suggest that he is a politician first and foremost.
"I know the sheriff and the district attorney perform a different kind of role than other elected officials. But when a friend calls you, you might make a call for him," said Rick Taylor, a political consultant.
Still, Fernando Guerra, director of the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said he believes Baca will survive any possible negative fallout from his involvement.
"Given the history of the elected sheriff's position in L.A. County, there could be no safer elective office," Guerra said, adding that the sheriff enjoys a high level of public approval.
But while Guerra and others said Baca benefits from having two more years before he faces reelection, others said voters have a long memory when it comes to scandals. They might not remember the details, that thinking goes, but they remember the names.
"People love negative gossip," Cerrell said. "They may not know the case, but they'll know there's something about this."