Bill Clinton's brother-in-law received about $400,000 for his work in helping two felons -- a convicted drug smuggler and a convicted swindler -- who received clemency on the president's last day in office, people familiar with the matter said. Hugh Rodham, the brother of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, returned the money yesterday at the request of the Clintons, his attorney said.
The former president said in a statement that he was unaware of any payment made to Rodham when he decided to commute the 15-year prison term of convicted cocaine distributor Carlos Vignali and grant a pardon to A. Glenn Braswell, a wealthy herbal supplement marketer convicted of fraud and perjury. About half the money was paid to Rodham, a lawyer, in the form of a "success fee" from Braswell and the other half came over time in payments from Vignali.
"Neither Hillary nor I had any knowledge of such payments," Clinton said. "We are deeply disturbed by these reports and have insisted that Hugh return any monies received."
Rodham's attorney, Nancy Luque, said in a statement that Rodham did nothing wrong and did not discuss the pardon petitions directly with the president. The Vignali petition went through normal procedures at the Justice Department, where sources said officials recommended against the pardon. The Braswell pardon bypassed normal Justice Department review, as did the pardons of commodities traders Marc Rich and Pincus Green.
"My client did not advise President or Senator Clinton of his involvement in these requests," Luque said in a statement. "He believes they were unaware until this week of his work on his client's behalf."
"He has returned these fees solely because his family asked that he do so," Luque said. "Their request, presumably made because of the appearance of impropriety, is one he cannot ignore. There was, however, no impropriety in these matters."
The former president was "furious," according to aides, when he learned of the payment early this week. What exactly was done by Rodham on behalf of Vignali and Braswell is not entirely clear, but one source said Clinton aide Bruce Lindsey spoke with Rodham about Vignali but not Braswell. Lindsey does not recall whether he discussed the Vignali pardon with the president or informed him of his brother-in-law's involvement, a source said.
Hillary Clinton said she did not talk with her brother about the pardons. Aides to the former president said that he does not have any recollection of Rodham's involvement and that they are checking files and records to see whether his role arose in the pardon process.
"I was very disturbed to learn that my brother, Hugh Rodham, received fees in connection with two clemency applications," Sen. Clinton said. "Hugh did not speak with me about these applications."
Hugh Rodham and brother Tony Rodham previously caused trouble for Bill and Hillary Clinton over a scheme to export hazelnuts from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The deal caused problems because the Rodhams were hosted in their negotiations by a rival of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, a staunch U.S. ally. The United States formally asked the Rodhams to drop the plan.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said he would ask Rodham to provide the committee, which already is investigating the pardons of Rich and Green, with information about whom he represented and how much he was paid. Inquiries also were made to Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. attorney in Miami who is representing Braswell, and Vignali.
"Yet again, this makes it look like there is one system of justice for those with money and influence, and one system of justice for everyone else," Burton said.
The House panel has subpoenaed documents regarding more than $1.5 million in donations made by Rich's ex-wife to Democrats, Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign and President Clinton's library.
Rodham's involvement is likely to fuel further criticism that special access and political connections played a role in many of the 176 clemency grants made by Clinton in the hours before he departed the White House.
Two congressional committees and the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan are conducting inquiries, focusing particularly on the pardon given to longtime fugitive Marc Rich. Former White House counsel Jack Quinn, representing Rich, bypassed the Justice Department's pardon process and appealed directly to Clinton. The FBI is investigating the pardon as well.
Clinton's decision to pardon Braswell for three 1983 convictions already was considered controversial because Braswell is under investigation in connection with what Los Angeles prosecutors have termed allegations of a "massive tax evasion and money-laundering scheme."
The Internal Revenue Service raided Gero Vita International, Braswell's business in Marina Del Rey, Calif., in 1999. Less than four months before his pardon, Braswell invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination nearly 200 times in a South Carolina civil case.
Clinton said later that he was unaware of the current investigation when he granted clemency on the earlier convictions. Because the case was not processed through the traditional route of the Justice Department pardon attorney, no queries were sent to the prosecutors, the FBI or other agencies that typically are invited to weigh in.
Braswell's companies market a line of herbal remedies and supplements that, according to the makers, can slow the aging process, cure hereditary baldness and shrink prostate glands. Gero Vita Industries' marketing "rivals the worst," Consumer Reports editors wrote in 1998.
This week's edition of the National Enquirer contains a photo of what is purported to be a document showing a transfer of $200,000 from Braswell's bank account in Canada to Rodham's firm, Rodham & Fine, in Jacksonville, Fla. The Enquirer said Braswell did not begin seeking the pardon until Jan. 12 and that the request and testimonials were completed by Coffey on Jan. 17, three days before Clinton left office. For nearly three weeks, Coffey has not returned telephone calls seeking comment.
Vignali filed a petition for commutation with the pardon attorney on Aug. 24, 1998. Prosecutors said Vignali played an important role in a drug ring that shipped more than 800 pounds of cocaine from California to Minnesota, where it was transformed into crack cocaine.
He drew support from local, state and federal politicians, as well as other prominent officials, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, who later said he erred in writing Clinton about the pardon.
Among those who wrote to Clinton on Vignali's behalf was former representative Esteban E. Torres, who suggested that Vignali was wrongly convicted. He said he was confident that Vignali "again will become a productive member of our society."
The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis, site of Vignali's trial and conviction in 1994, strongly opposed the commutation when asked by the Justice Department.