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Report Calls Obama Appointee Eric Holder’s Role in Commutation Petition “Disturbing”

December 2, 2008
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The only issue even remotely standing in the way of Eric Holder being confirmed as the next U.S. Attorney General seems to be his role in the 2001 pardon of federal fugitive and billionaire Marc Rich, who fled the country after being charged with tax evasion.

However, a 2002 Congressional Report titled “Justice Undone: Clemency Decisions in the Clinton White House,” called other actions taken by Holder in connection with a commutation petition for convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali “disturbing,” and found that Holder “took a similarly irresolute position in the Vignali case” as he did in the Rich pardon. “Carlos Vignali satisfies none of the appropriate grounds for commutation identified in Justice Department regulations,” the report found.

At issue in the Vignali commutation, according to the Congressional report, was then Deputy Attorney General Holder’s decision to pass along to the White House a recommendation by Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams that Vignali’s petition be denied, rather than sign the recommendation himself, as was Justice Department process. The report found that Holder allowed Adams, a subordinate, to oppose the Vignali commutation “while refusing to go on the record against a commutation the President apparently wanted to grant and the President’s own brother-in-law supported.”

Vignali was convicted in 1994 in a major cocaine conspiracy in Minnesota and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. His father, Los Angeles businessman Horacio Vignali, soon began urging Los Angeles politicians to lobby for his son’s release. On May 24, 1996, then California Assemblymember Antonio Villaraigosa, the current mayor of Los Angeles–a member of the Obama transition team and a rumored candidate for Labor Secretary–wrote the first letter to the Pardon Secretary, care of the White House, claiming that Vignali was “falsely linked to a drug ring.”

Over the next four years numerous Los Angeles politicians including U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, and then-U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas, another member of the Obama transition team, similarly contacted the White House on behalf of Horacio Vignali. A formal petition for commutation was filed with the Justice Department in 1998.

On January 12, 2001, Adams wrote a report to the president recommending against granting the petition, stating that Carlos Vignali “continues to deny his guilt” and that his petition “contains misleading statements and misstatements of fact.” [pdf"] Handwritten notes in the margins of the memo indicate “USA is actually against” the commutation, yet Holder refrained from signing off on it–one of the few cases in which he refused to sign off on Adams’ recommendations. In his interview for the Congressional report in 2001, Adams stated that Holder refused to sign two or three denial recommendations “because he didn’t want to sign any more denials,” after being advised by White House staff that President Clinton did not want to receive negative recommendations.

By then, according to a handwritten memo on White House stationery by Dawn Woollen, administrative assistant of Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey, the lobbying for Vignali’s commutation had reached the highest levels, as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose brother Hugh Rodham was a paid lobbyist for Vignalis, was said to be in favor of it. “Hugh says this is very important to him and the First Lady as well as others,” the memo states.

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