Clinton defenders finally admit to his power abuse

Posted: Feb 26, 2001 12:00 AM
In 1995 Carlos Vignali was sentenced to 15 years in prison for helping mastermind a scheme to distribute millions of dollars worth of crack cocaine. Six years later, on Bill Clinton's last day in office, he let Vignali free. When first questioned, Clinton's aides justified the decision by pointing out that this was Vignali's first offense and drug laws are too harsh in America. Todd Hopson surely must take great solace from all this. Described in the Los Angeles Times by his lawyer as an "uneducated black kid with a noticeable stutter," Hopson is one of Vignali's 30 co-defendants, most of whom are black, poor and serving out their terms without hope of a presidential reprieve. Hopson, an underling of Vignali's, was sentenced to more than 23 years. A lawyer for another of Vignali's co-defendants was quoted in a Feb. 11 Los Angeles Times expose, "How is it that Carlos Vignali is out eating a nice dinner while my client is still in prison eating bologna sandwiches?" One of Vignali's lawyers, Danny Davis, who refused to help in the effort to get him a commutation or pardon, told Horacio Vignali, the convict's father and a wealthy political contributor, that the chances of securing a presidential commutation were "like a snowball in Hades." But on Jan. 20, Vignali called his dad to say, "They're turning me loose! They're turning me loose! I'm a free man! I'm a free man!" Another Vignali lawyer, stunned that a cocaine kingpin could catch a snowball in Hades asked, "How'd you get out?" The convicted crack distributor replied matter-of-factly, "Word around prison was that it was the right time to approach the president." Could there be a better picture to close the Clinton-years scrapbook than a bunch of convicted drug dealers milling around the exercise yard chatting about the best timing for presidential pardons? Alas, it gets better - or worse, depending how you look at it. Now comes the news that in some sense the "word around prison" had a messenger from the outside: None other than the president's brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham. Hillary Clinton's brother received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Vignalis in return for his lobbying efforts to get Carlos' sentence commuted. One might think it cynical to assume there was any influence peddling going on. After all, who says it's anything more than a coincidence that a Florida lawyer with no known experience as a pardon attorney would be picked to handle the case of a California drug dealer being held in a Minnesota prison? Rodham would be the obvious pick no matter who was president. I'm just surprised Cap Weinberger didn't hire him to lobby Poppa Bush for Weinberger's pardon. Indeed, so obvious are the merits of Rodham in this field, that another criminal, Almon Glenn Braswell, also hired him. According to the Associated Press, he and Rodham agreed on a $200,000 "success fee," payable only if the pardon was received. Once Braswell got his pardon (despite being under FBI surveillance for other crimes) he paid Rodham for the services rendered. The money was wired on the first business day after Clinton's term ended, though, after the scrutiny, Rodham returned the money to Braswell and Vignali. This is all serious stuff, but it's hardly surprising. Bill Clinton has behaved like a Third World potentate from the beginning. Earlier this week, when Jimmy Carter described Bill Clinton's behavior in his final days in office as "disgraceful," it only served to remind some of us of how long Clinton defenders kept their mouths shut about it. The fuse of this pardon powder keg wasn't lit on the last day of the Clinton presidency but on its first. Indeed, if you wanted to, you could follow the smoldering spark through every chapter of the Clinton years - like the opening montage of the old "Mission Impossible" TV series - and you'd see scenes brimming with the arbitrary abuse of power (and you'd get to listen to that cool music). Wasn't Bill Clinton's behavior disgraceful when he gave a pardon to a bunch of Puerto Rican terrorists who never asked for one in the first place - just to help his wife's Senate campaign? How about when Clinton blew up an aspirin factory in the Sudan right after his Grand Jury testimony? Or claimed that his Secret Service agents have praetorian immunity from the courts and Congress just to cover up his baron-and-the-milkmaid act with an intern? Since Day One, the walls of the Oval Office have seen more McDonald's wrappers and buffalo-wing bones than dignified behavior by the commander-in-chief. The news here isn't that Clinton abused his power. The news is that his defenders have finally noticed. And it's sobering to ponder that the only reason his erstwhile friends are complaining now is that Clinton has no more power to abuse.