- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

Former President Bill Clinton's brother-in-law has returned almost $400,000 he was paid to help win a presidential pardon for a businessman now under criminal investigation and the commutation of a prison sentence for a convicted drug dealer.
Mr. Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said yesterday they did not know that Hugh Rodham had solicited the cash and were "deeply dismayed."
"Yesterday, I became aware of press inquiries 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," said Mr. Clinton, already under fire for his pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.
Mr. Rodham, a Florida attorney, was not available yesterday for comment.
In a separate statement last night, Mrs. Clinton said: "Hugh did not speak with me about these applications. I believe that the payments should be returned immediately, and I understand he has taken steps to do so."
The payments have now become the focus of a House committee already investigating Mr. Clinton's pardon of Mr. Rich and its connections to Democratic campaign contributions.
Mr. Rodham returned the cash to his clients yesterday, according to lawyers familiar with the matter.
The lawyers said the money went to Mr. Rodham for unspecified services on a commutation request for Mr. Vignali, a convicted drug dealer, and a pardon for Mr. Braswell, a convicted herbal-remedy marketer now under investigation for tax fraud.
The sources said the money included $200,000 after the Braswell pardon was granted and the rest paid over a period of time as Mr. Rodham worked on the Vignali commutation.
Mr. Vignali was among 36 persons granted commutations by Mr. Clinton. He was ordered released Jan. 20 from prison after serving six years of a 15-year term for his role in a massive crack cocaine distribution ring that operated from California to Minnesota.
His arrest in Minneapolis followed a two-year investigation by state and federal authorities and led to his conviction on narcotics charges for his role in a drug ring that sold more than 800 pounds of crack cocaine.
His father, Horacio Vignali, a wealthy California businessman, contributed nearly $200,000 to political candidates, mostly Democrats, including Rep. Xavier Becerra of California. Mr. Becerra was one of several Democratic lawmakers who wrote to Mr. Clinton to lobby on Mr. Vignali's behalf.
Mr. Vignali had argued that he was a first-time drug offender whose 15-year sentence was unfair. The commutation of his sentence was supported by a Catholic cardinal, a sheriff and community leaders, although Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles later announced that he had made "a serious mistake" in writing to Mr. Clinton on Mr. Vignali's behalf.
Federal prosecutors in Minneapolis personally wrote to the Justice Department to oppose the Vignali commutation, saying that although he was a first-time offender, he played a central role in a massive drug conspiracy that collected millions of dollars in illicit profits.
Mr. Braswell was convicted in 1983 on charges of fraud in connection with false claims he made about the effectiveness of a treatment for baldness. A federal judge sentenced him to three years in prison and five years of probation.
Mr. Clinton said the pardon was granted because the crime had occurred nearly 20 years ago with no indication of later problems.
White House officials said they were unaware of an ongoing investigation of Mr. Braswell, adding that a Justice Department request for a criminal background check showed nothing negative.
But after his Inauguration Day pardon, it was learned that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles were investigating Mr. Braswell in "a massive tax evasion and money-laundering scheme," according to court filings.
The Braswell pardon request went directly to the White House, bypassing the normal routine of sending it through the pardon attorney's office at the Justice Department.
President Bush's presidential campaign and the Florida Republican Party returned $175,000 in contributions from Mr. Braswell last fall after they learned he was a convicted felon.
House Government Reform Committee investigators probing the Clinton pardons said yesterday they want to know more about Mr. Rodham's involvement in the matter. They also have focused on what the White House knew regarding Mr. Rodham's connection particularly the role of former White House Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey, who they said was aware of Mr. Rodham's ties to the Vignali commutation request.
"We intend to look into this," said Committee Chairman Dan Burton, Indiana Republican.
He sent letters last night demanding answers and records from the key figures, including Mr. Rodham and the Vignali family.
In 1997, Ralph Nader questioned Mr. Rodham's role as part of the coalition of plaintiff's attorneys negotiating the tobacco industry settlement.
He said regular meetings Mr. Rodham had with Mr. Lindsey, the White House point man on the tobacco issue, concerning the settlement raised questions of "ethics and special access."
Mark R. Levin, who was chief of staff to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, questioned what legal service Mr. Rodham could have provided for the two men.
"It would appear that he was paid for his connections," he said. "And the idea that he would not tell his sister or his brother-in-law about his clients' desires is unbelievable."
Former White House officials have said the decisions on both men were made on the merits of their applications and their situations. A similar argument was made in the Rich pardon, which has drawn the ire of both Republicans and Democrats, along with that of law enforcement authorities.

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