| ||Political News|
Clinton Relative Returns Money Earned for Pardon
By John Solomon
Former president Bill Clinton's brother-in-law received about $200,000 for lobbying for a pardon and a prison commutation that Clinton granted on his last day in office, The Associated Press has learned. The money has been returned.
Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Wednesday they were unaware of the arrangements with Hugh Rodham. They said they had asked him to return the money and were "deeply disturbed" by what had happened.
Rodham, brother of Mrs. Clinton, returned the money in the past 24 hours, sources familiar with the arrangement said Wednesday.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rodham was paid for months of work on the prison commutation request of Carlos Vignali and received a "success fee" for helping win the pardon of Almon Glenn Braswell.
"Yesterday I became aware of press inquires that Hugh Rodham received a contingency fee in connection with a pardon application for Glenn Braswell and a fee for work on Carlos Vignali's commutation application," the former president said in a statement.
"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," he said.
The office of Mrs. Clinton, now a senator from New York, declined comment.
A source close to Clinton, speaking on condition of anonymity, said then-White House adviser Bruce Lindsey had been contacted and was aware of Rodham's involvement with the Vignali request. The source said Lindsey did not know about the presidential relative's involvement in the Braswell matter. The source was unaware of any other White House officials' knowledge about Rodham's role in the Braswell matter.
The decisions on both men were made on the merits of their situations, the source said.
The Braswell pardon has generated controversy because after it was granted on Jan. 20 it was disclosed that the businessman was under investigation on new allegations.
Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney declined comment Wednesday.
Braswell did not apply for his pardon through the Justice Department, while Vignali, son of a wealthy donor, applied for his commutation through the department in August 1998. Watney refused to say whether Justice recommended that Vignali be pardoned.
The 140 pardons and 36 commutations Clinton granted just hours before President Bush took office have generated criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike and prompted congressional and criminal investigations.
Until now, however, critics have mainly focused on the clemency Clinton granted to fugitive financier Marc Rich, who was indicted in 1983 on charges of tax evasion and making illegal oil deals with Iran.
Congressional committees have begun investigations and last week a U.S. attorney in New York opened up a criminal investigation into the Rich pardon to determine if donations by Rich's former wife contributed to the pardon.
Clinton has denied any wrongdoing, saying all the clemency decisions were made on the merits.
In the Vignali matter, numerous political figures lobbied to commute his drug sentence, including a Roman Catholic cardinal, a sheriff and community leaders.
The outpouring of support and the fact that Vignali was a first time drug offender who got a long sentence were the key factors in the commutation, the source close to Clinton said.
White House officials were told by a federal prosecutor in California that the Vignali family would be helpful in rehabilitating him and keeping him from getting in trouble again if his prison sentence was ended, the source said.
The source close to Clinton said the White House asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal background check on Braswell, did not know of the ongoing inquiry and was told the check found nothing negative.
Clinton decided to pardon Braswell because his wrongdoing was nearly two decades old and there was no indication of problems since, the source said.
Federal prosecutors are investigating Braswell in connection with "a massive tax evasion and money-laundering scheme," according to court documents filed in 1999 in Los Angeles – allegations the White House said it was unaware of.
Braswell, 57, was convicted for fraud and other crimes stemming from false claims in 1983 about the effectiveness of a treatment for baldness. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison followed by five years' probation.
After the pardon was announced, some federal officials worried that Clinton might have pardoned Braswell for any criminal charges that could arise from the current investigation.
The former president's office has said no one at the White House who reviewed the matter had any intention of the pardon covering anything other than the infraction from years ago.
Braswell's pardon application was made at the last minute and was among about two dozen that bypassed the traditional route through the Justice Department and the FBI.
The Florida Republican Party and the George W. Bush presidential campaign last fall returned $175,000 in contributions from Braswell after learning he was a convicted felon.
Vignali walked out of prison Jan. 20 after serving six years of a 15-year sentence for participating in a major cocaine ring.
He is the son of Horacio Vignali, a wealthy Los Angeles political contributor. But the former president said he was disturbed generally over lengthy sentences for first-time drug offenders and that "I felt that they had served long enough."
White House officials said Vignali's commutation received support from U.S. Attorney Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and a California sheriff. Also writing letters in support were Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, former Rep. Esteban Torres and state Sen. Richard Polanco.
But federal prosecutors in Minneapolis, where Vignali was convicted, said they wrote the Justice Department strongly opposing commutation.
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.