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Clemency Inquiry Is Expanded to All 177 of Clinton’s Last-Minute Cases

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Justice Department has designated a special team of prosecutors to investigate all the last-minute clemencies granted by outgoing President Clinton, including the commutation for convicted Los Angeles drug dealer Carlos Vignali, officials said Monday.

The decision by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, described by Justice Department officials as unprecedented in its scope, empowers U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White of New York to vastly broaden her office’s review of three controversial cases to encompass all 177 pardons and commutations granted by Clinton on his last day in the White House.

“She is going to be doing the investigation of all of these cases,” a Justice Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It is yet to be decided if she will refer some evidence to other jurisdictions for prosecution, if that develops. But for now she will be the point person.”

Word of the expanded investigation by White’s office came a day after Ashcroft said he did not believe that an independent counsel should be appointed to investigate the pardons. Rather, the attorney general said he favored having the investigation conducted within his Justice Department.

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“When you talk about a special counsel, my own view is that we have tens of thousands of lawyers in the Department of Justice,” Ashcroft said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

White’s office already is investigating three cases with direct ties to her Manhattan-based district: the pardon of fugitive commodities broker Marc Rich, commutations for four Hasidic Jews convicted of fraud, and the allegation that Roger Clinton, the president’s brother, received up to $200,000 for promising to help a Texas man win a pardon.

But the greatly expanded emphasis allows White to go much further in her investigation, sweeping up all of the other clemencies with potential criminal exposure, most notably the Vignali commutation.

In that case, a number of Los Angeles leaders supported the drug dealer’s early release from prison, and the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Alejandro Mayorkas, telephoned the Clinton White House on behalf of the Vignali family.

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The Vignali commutation also is under scrutiny because of the role of Clinton’s brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham, who was paid $200,000 by Vignali’s father, Horacio Vignali, to help get his son released from prison after serving six years of a 15-year sentence. Rodham later returned the money.

In an interview Monday, Mayorkas said he will seek guidance from the Justice Department on how he and his office should work with the New York team given his past relationship with the Vignali family. “I would have to consult with the department as to how they deem it might be proper to proceed,” he said.

The plan approved by Ashcroft calls for White to review all of the questionable clemencies. She then would decide whether to prosecute those cases that might have criminal exposure, or to refer any evidence she gathers to other jurisdictions around the country.

White’s office declined to comment about her expanded role. White’s office is likely to look into whether any of the clemencies were granted in return for money or other favors, as well as any evidence of fraud or other crimes.

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But other sources familiar with the matter said it seemed a smart move in that she is already ahead in investigating the first three cases.

“Anything to do with pardons, she’s got,” said a staff member for the House Government Reform Committee, which has held hearings on the pardons.

“There are two issues, a criminal issue and a government issue,” he said. The committee, he added, is “looking at the government issue, the behavior of government officials in this thing and the use of government power that may have been abused.”

Another committee staffer said that congressional investigators who had recently been looking into allegations about Roger Clinton’s connection to clemency requests were asked by Justice Department officials to step back while FBI agents pored over records and interviewed participants.

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“They’ve turned the ball over to Mary Jo White,” he said. “But there are still hard decisions they’re going to face. Ashcroft doesn’t want to get mired in the politics of an independent counsel, but who’s going to run this case if it keeps going?”

That decision--how and where any criminal charges might be brought--could be pivotal.

Several sources close to the matter wondered what jurisdiction White’s office would have in developing cases that do not fall under her district in New York, a situation that presumably would be challenged by defense attorneys.

“Jurisdiction could get sticky,” said one Justice Department source. “But she could have her grand jury in theory look at anything, develop evidence, and then send that to the appropriate district and they can convene a grand jury there.”

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A source inside the FBI office in Manhattan said that although White’s office is a good central location for consolidating the cases, he too wonders about the jurisdictional question.

He noted, however, that there are conspiracy statutes that could allow White to cast a large net and expand her own jurisdiction.

“I suppose from an organizational standpoint there will be an overarching conspiracy-type umbrella,” the FBI official said. “And so it would be most efficiently handled by having one entity handle it, and that brings it all up here to New York. In a way, that makes sense.”

There is also the inherent difficulty in making cases of bribery or influence-peddling where authorities must show a direct quid pro quo and prove that something specific was given and something specific returned.

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Although the independent counsel law expired last year, Ashcroft has the authority under Justice Department regulations to appoint such a special prosecutor, especially when it appears that having the Justice Department do the job would raise conflict-of-interest questions.

But Ashcroft, in making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, said there had been too many independent counsels appointed by his predecessor, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. He said that matters like the pardons controversy are best handled by career prosecutors.

“The people of the United States have a right to call on these professional prosecutors who have given their lives and careers to prosecuting in a fair and judicious way,” he said.

But Ashcroft stressed that having the investigation handled by the Justice Department does not mean that the review is not a high priority.

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“Frankly,” he said on the “Fox News Sunday” show, “I’m troubled about a variety of things in relation to the pardons. I think pardons ought to be used to correct problems in the justice system, not to reward friends or otherwise.”


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