- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

LOS ANGELES Bill Clinton may be gone, but his specter continues to haunt Democratic leaders, who hope to boost their hand-picked candidate into the mayors office in the nations second-largest city.
Mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the former State Assembly speaker who enjoys almost unanimous support among state and national party officials, is struggling against a new television ad, posted by his only rival, accusing him of being "untrustworthy" because of his involvement in the scandal surrounding Mr. Clintons rush of pardons and clemencies in the final hours of his presidency.
In 1996, Mr. Villaraigosa wrote a letter asking the president for clemency for convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali, a onetime rapper who was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for running a cocaine-smuggling ring.
Mr. Villaraigosa has accepted large campaign contributions from Vignalis family, both before and after writing the letter five years ago. He at first denied writing the letter, saying he instead had written to court officials overseeing Vignalis case.
"Los Angeles cant trust Antonio Villaraigosa," concludes the TV ad, run by City Attorney James K. Hahn, also a Democrat and Mr. Villaraigosas only rival in the runoff election for mayor tomorrow.
Mr. Clinton in January commuted Vignalis sentence, which had more than seven years left to run. The action was one of a series of pardons and clemencies that embarrassed the departing president and party leaders. Most famously, Mr. Clinton granted a pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich, ex-husband of Denise Rich, a major contributor to Democratic causes.
Vignalis father, Horacio Vignali, has been a consistent contributor to Mr. Villaraigosa, who received at least $6,000 from him and other family members between 1994 and 1997.
The Hahn ad, which began airing a week ago, features ominous music and grainy photos of Mr. Villaraigosa, his letter to the president, and shadowy images of an unidentified person smoking what appears to be crack cocaine. The Hahn campaign insists it is not trying to suggest Mr. Villaraigosa supports crack use, but instead wants to point out the candidates poor judgment in backing the convict.
"Its a question of character," said campaign consultant Kam Kuwata. "I think the voters in the mayors race know that whoever goes in is going to have to make a lot of decisions. … Its all about trust at the end of the day."
Mr. Villaraigosa, who was the surprise leader in the April primary election, has reacted strongly to the ad, calling it "reprehensible" and running his own ads accusing Mr. Hahn of waging a "campaign of fear."
"Your ad drags Los Angeles into the gutter by depicting drug addicts smoking crack cocaine and cynically implying that I support them," Mr. Villaraigosa wrote to Mr. Hahn this week after the ad first ran. "This is just the latest effort to instill fear into the Los Angeles public, and we dont think it is going to work," said press secretary Elena Stern.
Mr. Villaraigosa, however, does not deny the facts of the ad.
In his letter to the White House pardon office, Mr. Villaraigosa, then a junior member of the State Assembly, called Vignali a "hard-working young man who has been employed with the family business" and said that he had "no prior criminal record," a statement that turned out to be incorrect.
"After reviewing Mr. Vignalis case, I am convinced that he has been falsely linked to a drug ring in Minneapolis, Minn., and that his conviction is a product of guilt by association," Mr. Villaraigosa wrote.
Mr. Villaraigosa subsequently has said that he was not sufficiently familiar with the facts of the case and should not have written the letter. Ms. Stern said Mr. Villaraigosa was motivated by his longtime friendship with Vignalis father, a well-known businessman in the huge Southern California business community.
"It was merely a response to the pleas of a father. … He was really acting from his heart and not his head," she said.
Other prominent figures in Southern California, including Cardinal Roger Mahony, also wrote to the pardon office at the request of Vignalis family.
The Vignali family also paid $200,000 to Hugh Rodham, brother of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, in hopes of securing a pardon, another wrinkle to the pardon story that embarrassed Democrats.
Although the details in the ad are not new, having been widely reported for months in local media, the stark reminder of the pardon scandal comes at a bad time for Mr. Villaraigosa. After he staged a stunning upset in the April primary, coming from far behind to knock off a host of far better-known figures, his poll numbers have begun to slide under relentless assault from Mr. Hahn.
A Los Angeles Times poll, released a week before the election, showed Mr. Villaraigosa trailing Mr. Hahn by seven points, 47 percent to 40 percent, with 13 percent of likely voters undecided.


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