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Pardon me, boys

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Hillary says she knows nothing about her brother's dealings with her husband, but a new investigation may change that

Bill and Hillary Clinton have always maintained a hygienic distance between their scandals, like His and Hers towels. He had Monica; she had cattle futures. He rented out the Lincoln Bedroom; she emptied out the Travel Office. Whitewater had separate plot lines: his lost memory, her lost billing records. And for a month, it looked as if the 177 clemencies Clinton granted in his final days were falling neatly into the His column. But last week it became clear that U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White was investigating some that have signs of being community property--the commuted sentences of four members of a Hasidic sect following a meeting, which Hillary attended, between sect leaders and her husband.

There is not much you can do to an ex-President. The realists know it's too late to impeach him and too hard to indict him, since bribery is a difficult charge to prove. But with the news of a broader investigation, the focus of the scandal expands to include not just the Clinton who is worried about his legacy but also the one who is worried about her future. So many of the people who were pardoned had connections to New York that it was only a matter of time before the spotlight expanded from the former President to the sitting Senator.

Not that it wasn't breathtaking to watch a shiny new ex-presidency disappear under a freak mud slide. The debris hurtled by so fast that the New York Times editorial page seemed to run out of synonyms for disgust, revulsion and abuse. Jimmy Carter, the perfect ex-President, broke the cardinal rule of the brotherhood and called Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich "disgraceful." Even Terry McAuliffe, the former President's friend, said that decision had been wrong. Perhaps worst of all, there seemed to be no end to the bodies that might float down the swollen river. Congressional investigators subpoenaed another Clinton fund raiser, Beth Dozoretz, to tell all she knows about his pardon of Rich, the billionaire fugitive living in Switzerland.

And shattering any doubt that Clinton's pardons were shaped like boomerangs was the news, broken by the newspaper of record in the Clinton era, the National Enquirer, that Hillary's brother Hugh Rodham had made $400,000 for helping broker a commutation for a Los Angeles drug dealer and a pardon for a Florida swindler. That changed everything. "The brother showed up on the scene and put her right in the middle of it," says an aide to the House Democratic leadership. Suddenly, talk of a Clinton restoration to the White House seemed more far-fetched than ever. "The 2004 thing was never real," the aide says. "Certainly not now."

The criminal investigation could eventually spread to include any or all the pardons granted in the final daze of Clinton's second term. It seems that anyone who ever knew, talked to or met Bill Clinton in his first 54 years made some kind of last-minute pardon appeal to the President for a friend, relative or spouse. A lot of those pleaders were well heeled or working for folks who were. And so the matter of who got paid for doing all these good deeds--and whether that payment was in dollars or votes, now or later--could keep a prosecutor busy for months if not years.

That's where the question of Senator Clinton and the Skver sect comes in. Hillary Clinton has insisted she played no role in commuting the sentences of the four Hasidim, who stole more than $30 million in government grants, subsidies and loans, and that she did nothing unethical by attending two sessions with the leaders who sought their pardons. The first took place in the Rockland County village of New Square last August, while she was running for the Senate. State party operatives thought the tiny community--which had often voted in a bloc in the past--was a promising one for Hillary in her race against Republican Rick Lazio. Following Hasidic custom, Hillary covered her head and chatted about the village's health-care services from across a coffee table, on which a tall bouquet of flowers served as the traditional screen that Hasidim require between the sexes. As far as anyone knows, that was a campaign event only; no pardons were mentioned.

The next session came four months later, after the sect had delivered nearly 1,400 votes for Hillary and only 12 for Lazio. On the morning of Dec. 22, Grand Rabbi David Twersky and an associate went to the White House and tearfully appealed to the President to pardon Benjamin Berger, David Goldstein, Jacob Elbaum and Kalman Stern. Hillary attended the meeting in the White House Map Room but insists she did not participate in the conversation. "I did not play any role whatsoever," she told the Associated Press. "I had no opinion about it."

Clinton eventually commuted the sentences, but Hillary insists she never discussed the matter with her husband. A chat between President and Senator about pardoning a home-state constituent is no big deal. But federal investigators want to find out if the reduced sentences were traded for support at the ballot box.

What really threw Mrs. Clinton off stride last week was her brother's decision to accept $400,000 to lobby for two controversial clemency petitions: those of Carlos Vignali, a Los Angeles drug dealer, and A. Glenn Braswell, a Florida marketer of dubious health treatments. Rodham, who often spent the night at the White House, insisted last week that he purposely never spoke to his sister or his brother-in-law about his clients.

What he did do for them is unclear, especially in the case of Braswell, convicted of mail fraud, perjury and tax evasion in connection with questionable marketing of his health-care products. Rodham was brought into the case sometime in Clinton's final two weeks as President and was paid $200,000 as a "success fee" when Braswell's pardon came through.

Hugh's work for Vignali was of longer duration, beginning when the drug dealer's father Horacio asked Rodham to work on the clemency application. Rodham, a former public defender in Florida, was reluctant at first, but finally agreed. The elder Vignali, a wealthy Los Angeles businessman, had some sense of politics. He contributed generously to politicians in both parties, beginning in earnest in 1994 shortly before his son was to stand trial on conspiracy and cocaine-distribution charges. Prosecutors said the son deserved no quarter and expressed no remorse. Carlos was a key financier of a drug ring that transported about 800 lbs. of cocaine from L.A. to Minnesota in the early 1990s, and he came across as a blustery bully in tapes of wiretaps. He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

Having a lobbyist--much less your brother, staying upstairs, much less at the White House--was probably enough to force the junior Senator from New York to explain what she knew and when she knew it as quickly as possible last week. On Thursday she gave what is becoming her trademark, smile-through-adversity press conference. In a 45-minute session, Clinton explained that she first heard about Rodham's involvement as a pardon broker two weeks ago, when reporters began to make "inquiries of a vague nature." But she said she did not get "specific information" until Feb. 19, when she was told while watching a movie in a theater. She said she did not tell her husband until early the next morning "because he was traveling and not be told." It was then that they decided to force Rodham to give the money back.

The Senator did not deny that she might have conveyed other pardon requests to her husband's staff. "When it became apparent around Christmas that people knew that the President was considering pardons, there were many people who spoke to me, or, you know, asked me to pass on information to the White House counsel's office...You know, people would hand me envelopes, I would just pass them." Asked what she thought about what her husband had done in the end, she said, "You'll have to ask him or his staff about that."

Congressional investigators, meanwhile, have their sights on Roger Clinton, the rock singer who got his own pardon last month for a long-ago drug conviction, but not before asking his brother to grant clemency to half a dozen buddies. Clinton didn't, and Roger maintains he was never paid any money for those appeals. But two sources tell TIME that Horacio Vignali told associates he paid Roger $30,000 to work on the commutation of his son's sentence. A spokesman for Roger Clinton said he claims never to have accepted money from Vignali; an attorney for Vignali had no comment. Rodham's lawyer said there was no connection between Rodham's work and any Roger may have done.

Congressional investigators also want to talk to Beth Dozoretz, the Democratic fund raiser involved as a kind of legal midwife in the Rich pardon. A close friend of Rich's ex-wife Denise, Dozoretz brought Rich into Clinton's political orbit, brokering a $450,000 donation to his presidential library and what sources say was hundreds of thousands to the Democrats. No one knew of Dozoretz's link to the pardon until Rich's lawyers released an e-mail last month describing a Jan. 10 phone call she had had with Clinton in which he said he wanted to grant the clemency.

But sources tell TIME that Dozoretz played a bigger and earlier role than previously known. Closer to Clinton than Rich's lawyer Jack Quinn, Dozoretz enjoyed regular access to the White House. In late November she apparently established the first direct contact with Clinton on the pardon, telling him Quinn was representing Rich. Clinton told her to have Quinn get in touch with deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey. About two weeks later, Quinn delivered a book-size pardon application to the White House.

Dozoretz's discussions with Clinton on the pardon ended on the night of Jan. 19. As word of the Rich pardon leaked from the White House, she called the President at about 11 p.m. to thank him. Clinton was so busy with last-minute decisions he did not appear to understand what she was thanking him for, a source said. It was at least an hour before the Department of Justice's pardon lawyer, Roger Adams, was informed by the White House that Rich might be on the pardon list. That means Dozoretz, a personal friend and fund raiser, knew of the decision before the lawyer charged with carrying it out. The House Government Reform Committee subpoenaed Dozoretz last week to testify at its second hearing on the pardons this Thursday. Republicans are likely to question if she sought the pardon for Rich in return for the funds she raised from his ex-wife. Dozoretz pledged to raise $1 million for the project and saw Denise Rich as the source for much of it. Dozoretz's lawyer, Tom Green, declined to comment.

Where all this is going is anyone's guess, which may explain why Bill Clinton was said by two friends to be in pieces last week, at least as upset as he was during the worst of the Monica mess. Speaking last week with Rodham's lawyer, Nancy Luque, Clinton was more sad than angry and was worried most about the impact of the latest developments on his wife's career. This has not been the afterlife he imagined. A few weeks ago, before anyone knew anything about any pardons, friends had told him to stay out of sight for six months, just disappear into the woodwork. It's too late for that now.


Cover Date: March 5, 2001



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