Informants Named Vignali’s Father
Federal agents for more than 20 years suspected that a wealthy Los Angeles businessman, who recruited top Southern California law enforcement officials to persuade President Clinton to free his cocaine-dealing son, was involved in drug trafficking.
Horacio Vignali gained national attention last year as the dedicated father who successfully enlisted Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, former U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas and a host of elected officials in a longshot bid to win the early release of his son. Clinton eventually freed Carlos Vignali, who had served six years of a 15-year sentence for dealing kilos of cocaine.
A congressional inquiry into pardons and commutations granted by Clinton on his last day in office turned up confidential federal law enforcement reports containing unproven allegations that the elder Vignali also was in the cocaine business. One informant told the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that Vignali was his son’s supplier.
The allegations, drawn from raw investigative files and based largely on statements by informants, have never been strong enough to yield a criminal charge against Horacio Vignali.
Yet the report raises pointed questions about whether local law enforcement leaders should have checked Vignali’s background before describing him to the White House as a man of the highest integrity.
In the drug trial of his son, Carlos, prosecutors said the defendant showed no interest in making a deal for a lesser prison term by revealing who supplied him with the cocaine and instead went to trial despite strong evidence against him.
Todd Jones, the former U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, where the young Vignali was prosecuted, said investigators and prosecutors suspected “he did not want to snitch on his dad” or someone else very close to him.
“That’s just logic,” Jones said. “We knew it [the drug conspiracy] did not end with this 21-year-old kid, so obviously there was someone close to him that he was extremely loyal to and that he was willing to go to prison for, for a long time.”
While emphasizing the unproven nature of the allegations in DEA files, the House Committee on Government Reform nonetheless cited them this month in a report critical of Southern California politicians and the two law enforcement leaders who helped Vignali persuade Clinton.
The committee said Baca and Mayorkas would have had access to law enforcement files and should have checked them.
Mayorkas: ‘I Made a Mistake’
Mayorkas, a Clinton appointee now in private practice, said the committee’s criticism is fair. He said he did not know the elder Vignali very well.
“It is reasonable to expect that someone in my position would do his or her due diligence to learn that information,” he said. “I made a mistake.”
Baca disagreed. He said in an interview that it is not reasonable to expect him to check the backgrounds of everyone he deals with, including campaign fund-raisers and friends such as Vignali. He disputed that information, such as the mentions of Vignali buried in law enforcement files, would have been readily available to him even if he had tried to check.
Both men said they would not have provided references if they had been aware of the allegations.
References to Horacio Vignali and his longtime business partner in law enforcement files appear to be based mainly on statements by criminals--drug dealers and, in one case involving the partner, statements by a killer for hire. They gave information to police after they were caught.
Although the congressional committee cited allegations only from DEA files, Southern California-based investigators at other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies also mention Horatio Vignali in connection with drug trafficking in their reports, The Times found.
Horacio Vignali and his partner are mentioned together in files of the FBI, the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and the criminal investigation division of the Internal Revenue Service. A letter sent in 1994 from an IRS criminal investigator in Minnesota, where Carlos Vignali was indicted for supplying cocaine to a Midwest ring, to an IRS agent in Los Angeles referred to the elder Vignali as “a known drug dealer.”
Files maintained by six more federal and California police agencies contain allegations that Vignali’s partner, Los Angeles supermarket owner George Torres, had links to the illegal narcotics trade. Torres also is mentioned in the DEA reports cited by the congressional committee, but there were no criminal charges filed against him.
Horacio Vignali, through his attorney, declined to comment.
Torres, through his attorney, declined an interview but denied involvement with illegal drugs.
“For whatever reason, George Torres’ name appears in reports,” said the attorney, Richard Hirsch. “There has been no evidence that has led law enforcement to charge him with any crimes other than the minor ones to which he has pled in the past. Therefore, there is no substance to anything which appears in the House report [or the other reports]. . . . They are simply based on information obtained from informants that has never been corroborated in any way. . . . Informants say a lot of things to help themselves and more often than not this information turns out not to be true.”
The earliest reference to Vignali cited by the House committee involves a DEA account of Vignali’s own reported admission to undercover law enforcement officers.
“In November, 1975,” the DEA said, “he negotiated with ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] Agents to sell a machine gun and stated to them that he also smuggled heroin into the United States utilizing automobiles.”
More than 20 years later, as Vignali was lobbying the Clinton White House, internal DEA reports mentioned unconfirmed suspicions that he and Torres were involved in large-scale cocaine trafficking, according to the committee report.
“To date, the investigation shows that the Torres organization is involved in the importation and distribution of drugs throughout the United States,” said a 1998 DEA report quoted by the committee. “Latest intelligence reveals that this group is distributing approximately one hundred (100) kilograms of cocaine per month. . . . George Torres is the head of this organization. . . . Vignali’s role in the organization is relatively unknown at this time. It is believed that Vignali functions as a financial partner in the organization. Vignali has been involved in organizing meetings between Torres and individuals with extensive criminal backgrounds.”
The 1998 DEA report continued: “The Torres organization has used its profits from drug trafficking to purchase legitimate businesses and properties throughout the Southern California area. . . . Investigators believe that Torres uses these businesses . . . to launder his drug profits. Members of the Torres organization have been involved in various acts of violence.”
It is not clear how Torres, who owns the Numero Uno supermarket chain, met Vignali, who until recently owned the C&H; Auto Body Shop and custom car dealership. But public records show they have been partners in various real estate deals and business investments, including a swap meet and toy and general merchandise importing businesses.
Torres and Vignali also had other ties. Public records show they used the same lawyers for many of their joint and separate business dealings and in civil lawsuits. A 1997 state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement report noted that Torres continued to pay utilities on a penthouse near downtown after Vignali had bought it from him.
In addition, a 1993 DEA report obtained by The Times quoted an informant who said Torres and Vignali traveled together to Las Vegas, where they were big gamblers. Law enforcement officials later subpoenaed casino records on Torres, which disclosed that in 1998 he held a credit line of more than half a million dollars at one establishment.
Horacio Vignali has said he came to the United State with his father from Argentina in 1962 and set up an auto repair business that flourished on Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles. He was paid $5 million in public funds when the city acquired some of his downtown property by eminent domain to make way for the expansion of the Convention Center in the late 1980s.
Vignali tried in the early 1990s to develop a hotel-casino and sports arena near where the Staples Center was later built.
Vignali also made a name for himself as a politician’s friend.
He stepped up efforts to court local officials after his son was convicted in 1994, writing $160,000 in his own checks to candidates and hosting fund-raising events at his auto body shop. He became well known for putting on an apron to work the elaborate barbecue grill he often towed to campaign fund-raisers.
The gregarious 56-year-old was active in Latino politics and was seen as an informal mediator of disputes among elected officials. He was one of Baca’s early financial supporters, giving $11,000 personally and raising tens of thousands of dollars more for the sheriff’s campaign.
During a campaign that stretched over several years, Vignali also persuaded other Los Angeles officials to write letters or make phone calls to the White House on behalf of his son.
Carlos Vignali, now 30, had been captured on wiretap recordings talking in what jurors agreed was coded language, while supplying between 5 and 15 kilos to the Minnesota ring.
Horacio Vignali’s pitch to supporters was simple. He said his son was wrongly convicted, that all Carlos did was lend money to a friend. The wiretaps captured conversations about the loan, he said, that were misinterpreted by prosecutors and jurors.
Among the officials he enlisted to write or call Clinton aides were Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), former Rep. Esteban Torres, state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, former Assembly speakers Antonio Villaraigosa and Bob Hertzberg, former Los Angeles City Councilmen Richard Alatorre and Mike Hernandez and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.
Most said later they acted out of sympathy for Horacio Vignali, taking his word that his son got railroaded. There is no evidence any of them knew of the allegations in confidential law enforcement files that the elder Vignali may have been involved in drug trafficking.
Mayorkas and Baca said they gave character references for the father.
“I limited information to my personal experience with the father,” Mayorkas said, explaining he had mingled with Horacio Vignali at social events and also socialized with him a couple of times alone. “I felt some compassion for the father and regrettably, that compassion may have been misplaced.”
Baca said that after “listening to the father’s broken heart” he wrote a character-reference letter for Horacio Vignali and responded to a call from the White House. Baca said, however, that he remained neutral on clemency and told a White House official the decision was Clinton’s. The official who spoke with him, however, said she came away believing the sheriff supported clemency.
Former Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey spotlighted Baca’s and Mayorkas’ roles in the final decision. Lindsey told a congressional hearing last year that he went along with Carlos Vignali’s early release, saying if Baca and Mayorkas “were not concerned about him coming back to their community, that I thought it was an appropriate commutation.”
Horacio Vignali also paid $200,000 to Hugh Rodham, former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother, to lobby the White House on his behalf.
Baca said in an interview he learned only last month that Congress was preparing to disclose the unproven allegations against Horacio Vignali.
In response, Baca said, he returned the $11,000 in contributions from Vignali and began trying to find out about the allegations himself. He said he called and wrote letters to top officials of the FBI, DEA and U.S. Customs Service in Los Angeles, asking them if Vignali had been suspected of criminal activity. He said he was told “no” and has not heard back in three weeks on follow-up written requests.
“The fallaciousness of the [congressional] report is that this information is so easy to get,” Baca said.
Baca: ‘The Whole Thing Stinks’
The sheriff said responsibility lies with the Clinton administration.
“It’s disgusting that the White House doesn’t do due diligence and it’s disgusting that the Congress wants to blame the sheriff of Los Angeles County for what the president did,” Baca said. “The whole thing stinks. Vignali stinks. The White House stinks, this report stinks.”
The sheriff said he also did not know of the unproven allegations against Torres, whom he described to the committee as “a legitimate businessman.”
Public records show that Torres, 45, dropped out of high school in Los Angeles to begin working on his father’s fruit truck route and family-owned store. He later expanded that into a supermarket chain and won community accolades, including a plaque from the Los Angeles City Council, in part for giving free rides to low-income patrons.
Police files portray him less flatteringly.
Los Angeles and Whittier police department reports obtained by The Times from the late 1980s cited, respectively, a narcotics detective’s and an informant’s account that Torres was suspected of shipping cocaine.
Another informant, arrested with a truckload of cocaine, gave the FBI a tour of what he described as sites related to the ring. He pointed out a warehouse owned by Torres, as well as Vignali’s downtown car business, according to the FBI reports, saying it was a storage facility for cars owned by ringleaders.
In spring 1993, two other informants were questioned by the DEA, according to law enforcement reports. One of these informants told the DEA he believed Torres trafficked in 100-plus kilo lots of cocaine.
Still another informant, who was arrested for running drugs, told the DEA he had bought hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Vignali’s son and that Horacio Vignali was the source of his son’s supply, according to an DEA report.
The same informant later told the DEA that Torres supplied Vignali’s son and claimed that neither Torres nor the elder Vignali handled the drugs themselves.
Within a month of Carlos Vignali’s indictment in Minnesota in December 1993, public records show, Horacio Vignali transferred ownership of a San Fernando Valley condominium that he had purchased from the informant’s mother back to her.
Public files in Los Angeles County show Horacio Vignali has no criminal record.
Torres has a short criminal record. He was convicted in 1992 of gun possession for having a loaded .25-caliber handgun in his vehicle and again in 1996 for having loaded 9-millimeter and .380-caliber semiautomatic handguns in a car he was driving.
Torres was placed on probation for gun possession. While he was on probation, his flagship supermarket on Jefferson Boulevard at San Pedro Street, an adjacent warehouse and his homes were searched in 1999. Authorities can search probationers without a warrant, meaning they do not have to persuade a judge that they have good reason. They found about $1 million in cash, as well as weapons and ammunition, but no drugs. They also found a copy of a confidential DEA report on Torres and Vignali.
Hirsch, Torres’ attorney, said the guns belonged to Torres’ security force and had been in a storeroom since the 1992 riots. Torres ultimately was sentenced to 30 days for leaving the state without the permission of his probation officer.
Times staff writers Beth Shuster and Stephen Braun contributed to this report.