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Sen. Hillary Clinton Campaign Treasurer Gives Press Conference to Address Allegations of Corruption in Former Administration

Aired February 23, 2001 - 11:01 a.m. ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now live to the press conference being held by John Cunnungham III. He is the treasurer -- he was the treasurer of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign.


WILLIAM CUNNINGHAM III, HILLARY CLINTON'S FORMER CAMPAIGN TREASURER: Prior to joining my law firm, for five and one-half years I was a federal prosecutor. I was an assistant United States attorney in the Eastern District of New York.

Let me tell you about two of our firm's clients, Jim Manning and Bob Fain, from Little Rock, Arkansas. In the late 1970s, when they were in their thirties, they made the mistake of their lives when they filed a fraudulent corporate income tax return for their restaurant business, International Ventures, Inc.

When confronted by the government, they negotiated a guilty plea agreement with the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. On August 13, 1982, judgments of conviction were entered against both men. Mr. Manning was sentenced to 15 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. He completed his sentenced on November 29, 1983. Mr. Fain was sentenced to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. He sentence was completed on January 13, 1983.

Having taken responsibility for their actions and served their time, Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning resumed their lives as productive, law- abiding members of the Little Rock community. In late year 2000, friends and business associates of Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning discussed with them that they should seek presidential pardons for their 18- year-old convictions.

Why? Mr. Manning and Mr. Fain continue to be in the restaurant business. Because of their federal convictions, Arkansas law severely restricts their ability to hold liquor licenses. Their ability to seek public financing for the businesses is also handicapped.

Mr. Manning is now 60 years of age and would like to be able to apply for a sportsman's hunting license, which he cannot do as a convicted felon. Mr. Fain, who is now 53 years of age, stated in his petition a personal reason for seeking a presidential pardon. He would like his children to be able to explain to his grandchildren that he made a serious mistake, took full responsibility for his actions, paid his debt to society, and then after 20 years, he was pardon.

And so Mr. Manning and Mr. Fain obtained the pardon application form and instructions provided by the United States Department of Justice, the Office of Pardon Attorney. They attempted to complete the petition themselves but they had difficulty doing the job.

One of the Little Rock supporters for their pardons was a person that Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning and their families and friends had known going back to the days when he was a Little Rock High School drama teacher and football coach. His name is Harry Thomason. Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning told Mr. Thomason that they needed assistance in completing the pardon paperwork. Mr. Thomason contacted his friend and my partner, Harold Ickes, seeking legal assistance.

Mr. Ickes, knowing that I was a former federal prosecutor and that in private practice I do white-collar criminal defense work, recommended me. On January 9, 2001, Mr. Manning and Mr. Fain contacted me and retained my law firm to assist them in completing their pardon petitions. They agreed to pay me for the time it took me to complete the task. My fees for professional services rendered totaled $4,062.50.

Based upon my professional experience as a former assistant United States attorney and my review of the relevant facts, I concluded that my clients were well-deserving of pardons. Indeed, their petitions, in my judgment, presented an ideal opportunity to achieve the goal which the Constitution empowers the president to perform, to complete the circle of justice by pardoning worthy individuals.

On January 12, 2001, three days later, I sent the petitions by overnight delivery to Roger C. Adams, the pardon attorney at the Department of Justice. Copies of the petition were also forwarded to the White House.

You have copies of what I submitted.

I did not speak with anyone at the Department of Justice or the White House about the petitions. I did not speak with Senator Clinton or anyone on her staff about the petitions. I learned that the pardons were granted when my clients names were published in the newspapers.

My clients were Mr. Manning and Mr. Fain. My professional obligation was to assist them in completing their petitions and getting them submitted to the pardon attorney and to the White House. This is what I did.

And now, I'd be happy to take any questions you might have.


CUNNINGHAM: Well, maybe we'll do it just do it one at a time.

QUESTION: Did every occur to you, though, that because of your connection with Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign that perhaps you should have recused yourself and said, "This could have the appearance of something funny, something odd here." And thus say, "No, I'm not going to do this."

CUNNINGHAM: No, it never occurred to be, because this petition process that I was involved with had nothing at all to do with Senator Clinton. These two gentlemen that I represented are not New Yorkers. They were not contributors to Senator Clinton's campaign. Indeed, they have advised me that they are strong supporters of President George Bush and President George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, so they are not Clinton supporters.

The job here that I performed was basically assisting them in getting the paperwork done on an expedited basis, so that it could be before both the White House and the pardon attorney.

My work for Senator Clinton really involved this: I am the treasurer of her campaign, and I'm honored to be so when I continue as treasurer of Friends of Hillary.

She contacted me to perform a very discreet function, and that is, as treasurer of her campaign, it's my responsibility to work with the professionals in reviewing the financial submissions that must be submitted to the Federal Election Commission. And I, as treasurer, sign off on that. She asked me to do it. I do it on a volunteer basis. It's my great honor to do so, and I will continue to do it as long as she will ask me to continue. One has nothing to do with the other.

QUESTION: Mr. Cunningham, you said that you did not speak directly to Senator Clinton. Harold Ickes is a partner of yours. Did he speak to Senator Clinton about this?

CUNNINGHAM: Harold Ickes is my partner and my very good friend. He did not speak with Senator Clinton or anyone on her staff.

QUESTION: Did he speak to the president?

CUNNINGHAM: He did not speak to anyone at the White House, including the president, in connection with these petition applications.


QUESTION: Did Mr. Thomason have any other role other than to refer these two men to you? Did he speak to the president? Did he speak to Mrs. Clinton? Are you aware of any role he played?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, Mr. Thomason should, you know, speak for himself, and you're welcome to contact him. My understanding is that he was an advocate for these worthy individuals for a grant or pardon and that he was in touch with White House staff. But beyond that, I have no specific information. QUESTION: Do you think you've done anything wrong or anything sinister here?

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely not. I mean, I'm a former federal prosecutor. I'm an experienced defense attorney. The work that I was doing here was the work I do every day in connection with federal criminal defense work. I was paid for the time that I was invested. These gentlemen retained me because of my abilities and, frankly, for my reputation of good character and integrity. So I have no qualms about anything I've done here.

QUESTION: But don't you think that when you forwarded the letters to the White House, your name was not going to ring a bell and have some extra power or influence there?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't think so, largely because I was not the advocate. I think it's fair to say that Harry Thomason and other members of the Little Rock, Arkansas, community were the real advocates for my two clients. My problem that they were confronted with was they had very little time to get the paperwork done. And I was basically retained to review and consult with them and to get the paperwork done in proper form and submitted to them.


QUESTION: Mr. Cunningham, as a former assistant United States attorney, you have a big background in prosecuting cases, and I wonder what your take is, having looked at the stories over the last few days of Hugh Rodham getting $400,000 to participate in two pardons, of Roger Clinton being investigated for his role in five other pardons. And I'm wondering if you think that there should be some investigation here, and if you think that Mary Jo White is within her bounds to investigate, not only the Rich pardon, but also the pardon granted to the four people from Rockland County, who -- it's a vote for pardons investigations?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I have great confidence in Mary Jo White, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. She is a true professional, and she will discharge her responsibilities in a very appropriate manner. And beyond that, I really have no comments. I'm really here to speak about my two clients, Mr. Manning and Mr. Fain.

QUESTION: Have you ever expedited pardon applications in the past?

CUNNINGHAM: I have not. I have not. If you've had a chance to look at the paperwork, the pardoning process is really part of the sentencing process, where the standards that federal judges utilize in court, looking as to whether or not a defendant has accepted responsibility, that he has shown remorse, that he has conducted a lawful life after the infractions, those are standard parts of the criminal sentencing process, and the pardon application process is just part of that as well.

QUESTION: Having Harry Thomason be an advocate for these two men in the White House, do you believe they had a better shot at getting a pardon than somebody who did not have Mr. Thomason as an advocate?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, it's hard to say. I have no reason to compare Mr. Thomason to anyone else who might have been involved in other pardon applications.

I will say that Mr. Thomason's qualification is he is well-known, a respected individual, and that he was prepared to put his personal name and reputation on the line in support of these two individuals. And obviously that's an important endorsement of the two of them.


QUESTION: You said that there is actual conflict and there is perception of conflict. Did you at the time or do you now think that perhaps there is a perception of conflict here?

CUNNINGHAM: No, I don't. And I think, you know, any rational analysis of the situation would say that this work, what I as an attorney did on behalf of these two individuals, really had nothing to do with my role as treasurer of Senator Clinton's campaign.

My responsibilities to her were completely independent of this. And in the light of day, I see no actual conflict and no appearance of conflict.

QUESTION: In the last couple of days, have you felt, as you see, for example, Hugh Rodham receiving $400,000 for helping the two people and you got $4,000 roughly, that you could have gotten a lot more money?

CUNNINGHAM: No, I don't feel that way at all. When these gentlemen contacted me, the discussion about fees was that I should be paid my normal hourly rate for the time that it would take this work to be done.

This is what I do as an attorney; this is what the 55 lawyers in our law firm do each and every day. So I don't feel in any way that I should have dealt with our fee payment arrangements differently.

I told these gentlemen who are in very tight time circumstances that I will be happy to assist them, get the work done, and their obligation was to pay me for the time, which was about $4,000.

QUESTION: Mr. Cunningham, you've described the clients as very worthy individuals for a pardon. Based on your experience in these matters, do you think that if they had not engaged a politically connected law firm and also engaged the services of Harry Thomason, a friend of the president and the first lady, that they would have been able to win this pardon?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I don't know that they've engaged the services of Harry Thomason. My understanding of Mr. Thomason's role is that he was acting as a friend of theirs. I think that they were certainly well-served by engaging my services in terms of getting the paperwork done in a competent, expedited manner. And that's, you know, all I can offer in terms of my reaction. QUESTION: Do you believe they got the pardon on their merits and not because they knew Thomason and he knew Ickes and he knew President Clinton?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't think there's any question. And I've yet to hear anyone from the press or others criticize the merits of their application. This application stood on its merits.

QUESTION: But how many pardons were rejected by the president that were just as valid? CUNNINGHAM: I have no idea. I have no information about that, and I'm not sure any of that has been disclosed.

Look, the fact of the matter is -- and again, I'm speaking as someone who has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney -- the pardon power is a very important power.

It would be very nice, you know, that we would devote resources at the Department of Justice so that thousands of people like Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning could receive the pardons after leading exemplary lives after making mistakes earlier in their lives. We're not in that position right now, unfortunately.

But both those gentlemen were worthy candidates, and I'm very comfortable and felt strongly that they were deserving of the pardons.

QUESTION: Has either Manning or Fain ever met either of the Clintons?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't believe either of them have met Senator Clinton. I believe, on occasion at business luncheons in Little Rock, they may have met the president, but that might have gone back to days when the president was the governor of Arkansas. They are not friends of either Clinton, social or otherwise.

QUESTION: Can you describe the relationship between Mr. Ickes and Mr. Thomason?

CUNNINGHAM: You have to talk to Harold and to Mr. Thomason about that.

QUESTION: How do they know each other?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, they've known each other, going back to the earliest days of the first presidential campaign, back in '91, '92. I don't know if their relationship preceded that date.

QUESTION: What is your relationship with Mr. Thomason?

CUNNINGHAM: I have really no relationship with Mr. Thomason. I've spoken with him on the telephone once. I believe that's the only contact I had with him. Mr. Thomason reached out to his friend, to Harold Ickes, seeking legal assistance for Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning.

When Mr. Ickes spoke with me about it, Mr. Manning and Mr. Fain called me directly. I did not speak with Mr. Thomason. QUESTION: Mr. Cunningham, since you've already said that resources are limited for granting presidential pardons. Are you really also saying that in order to get a presidential pardon that are so scare, it depends on who you know?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't think so, because I think that in recent history different, you know, presidents have done great things, in terms of amnesties, dealing with the Vietnam draft resisters, where there was no money there.

I have really no opinion or comment about what this president has done. I can tell you, though, in connection with Mr. Fain and Mr. Manning, these were not supporters of President Clinton, they were not campaign contributors to him. They were businessmen in Little Rock who were hoping to get favorable action, and they got it. QUESTION: If they hadn't known Mr. Thomason, is there any chance in the world of them getting a pardon?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't know what other, you know, resources they might have had. Obviously, Mr. Thomason's role in this pardon consideration was an important one.

QUESTION: What is your relationship with the president? How many times have you met with him? Did you met with him at all?

CUNNINGHAM: No. I've met the president on probably two or three occasions and very informally and very quickly.

QUESTION: Do you have any relation directly with Hillary Clinton on this case?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I am the treasurer of Senator Clinton's past campaign and the Friends of Hillary. And I would, you know, describe myself as a volunteer very supportive of the great work that the Senator's going to do for the people of New York. But I would not describe myself as a confidential adviser or an intimate of...


STAFF: We'd like to take one more question.

QUESTION: Mr. Cunningham, can you explain why this came in so late, why their attempts to get pardons sort of foundered until they came to you?

QUESTION: What was the delay that they...

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I think they were literally very much late to the process. I think they began thinking seriously about it in December with a looming deadline in terms of the Inauguration Day. So they basically attempted to move as quickly as they possibly could to get the job done.

Thank you very much.

HARRIS: And that wraps up William Cunningham III's press conference this morning.

And in a nutshell, this experienced defense and once prosecuting attorney made his case for the fact that, in saying repeatedly that he didn't think that one matter had anything to do with the other. The matters being his serving as Hillary -- Senator now, Hillary Rodham Clinton's treasurer during her campaign, even though he was also working as an attorney who was preparing and sending in pardon applications, two of which were approved by President Clinton. He says as to the question of whether or not there is an appearance of impropriety, he said repeatedly there is none. And he didn't think so then. He does not think so now.

We are still trying to follow the story, and we'll have the latest developments for you as they come in -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And we've got more info on it, plus some reaction, Leon.

We're going to go to Capitol Hill, where CNN congressional correspondent Kate Snow is standing by -- Kate.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared here yesterday on Capitol Hill. She came in from her home. The Congress is on a break right now, so most members of the Congress are not here.

But at that time, yesterday, she took a number of questions. And she did talk about Mr. Cunningham and his involvement in all of this. Senator Clinton saying that she did not know that her former treasurer for her campaign had been involved in any of this. She did not know that he had received a small fee for his services.

She did make a point, however, of saying that Mr. Cunningham is a lawyer, and lawyers do what lawyers do. She said, Look, many lawyers all over the country were involved in various cases of soliciting pardons or clemency from the president of the United States. This case to her, anyway, seemed to be at on its face no different from that.

She called Mr. Cunningham a fine lawyer and a fine man, and suggested that he simply did what any professional lawyer would do, which is a bit of what you heard echoed just now from Mr. Cunningham himself.

One of the two pardons that Mr. Cunningham has been referring to is actually one of those that's now being investigated by Senator Arlen Specter. Actually, the word "investigation" is probably too strong. He is looking into one of these two cases.

Capitol Hill certainly paying a lot of attention. A couple of committees up here launching investigations and looks into some of these pardons. The news are sort of accumulating day by day.

And a former press secretary for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Clinton, says that all of this news, and all of this attention on the former president and on the pardons that he granted, is certainly distracting Senator Clinton from what she came here to do.


LISA CAPUTO, HILLARY CLINTON'S FMR. PRESS SECY.: After what this woman has been through over the past eight years of relentless investigations, you know, it's almost, like, Here we are again in a situation. And at this point in time, she really has developed this tough outer skin to deal with it.

I think, you know, very clearly, it's fair to say she is terribly sad, and she's very disappointed. It's in a very unfortunate set of circumstances.

But, you know from her standpoint, it's very clear. She had absolutely no idea that this had gone on with her brother, and said so yesterday. And she is pressing forward with her job as a senator.


SNOW: Now, the criticism may not be over yet, though. One more development to tell you about with another Clinton family member: Roger Clinton, who is, of course, the half brother of the former president.

Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican, has written a letter to Roger Clinton, asking that he provide some information. The Congressman, a source on the committee, tells me they have suspicions that perhaps Roger Clinton might have received some money in exchange for trying to help people, a handful of people receive clemency from the president.

A spokesman for Mr. Clinton says she spoke with Roger Clinton about this, and this is absolutely untrue, she says. She says that he did not receive -- he's received absolutely no money.

But that he did solicit or talk to the president about five or six people, friends and acquaintances of Roger Clinton that he felt deserved a pardon. He passed the list to President Clinton at the time. President Clinton looked it over, passed it onto his counsel's office. And in the end, none of those people, according to a spokesperson for President Clinton, none of the people on that list from Roger Clinton were granted clemency.

Back to you.

PHILLIPS: All right, Kate Snow, live on Capitol Hill, thanks -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, let's go now to our Bill Schneider. He is our senior political analyst, who's in Washington.

Bill, what do you make of this? It seems as though the hits just keep coming.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They certainly do. And it was -- I think it was strange credulity a little bit when the attorney that we've just heard, William Cunningham, said that he was retained by these two clients. He said, quote, "because of my abilities and my character, this had nothing to do with the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign," of which, of course, he was the treasurer.

Well, how do these guys from Little Rock, Arkansas, end up with him as a lawyer? Well, it happened through two links in a connection. Harry Thomason called Harold Ickes who recommended them.

Well, I think you have to believe that his name at least as someone connected to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign, was at least instrumental in his being hired in this, and probably showed up on some pieces of paper even if he never really said he discussed it with the then-first lady or with the former president.

HARRIS: So you think, then, perhaps this actually raises more questions than answers at this particular point?

SCHNEIDER: I think it does. I mean, you know, why did they hire him? What did they think they were getting?

Hillary Clinton described him as a fine lawyer. There's no reason to believe he's not. He described his clients as worthy applicants for a pardon. And it sounds as if they may be. The amount of money was fairly small.

But what was his name doing as the person on the piece of paper who processed the pardon applications? This looks like a case of very clear connections, with -- starting with Harry Thomason, a very close friend of the president.

And several of the questioners raised that issue: Could this pardon have happened if he didn't have those kinds of connections?

HARRIS: Yes, but what we have seen happen this morning is that that particular event has formed one half of the pincher that Senator Clinton finds herself in this morning.

There's also the new issue this morning about the talk of four Hasidic men who received pardons as well, and there probably being some accusations of some impropriety in their getting that because of votes being delivered to her in her campaign race.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. The community that those men came from in New York voted overwhelmingly, almost unanimously, for Mrs. Clinton in the United States Senate race that she went in -- she was in last year.

Now, they claim that their pardon was not discussed when they visited the White House. They were simply constituents of hers. But yet most Hasidic Jews did not vote in anything like those numbers for Mrs. Clinton. So there is at least some evidence that there might have been a quid pro quo.

Again one can't -- there's no evidence of a direct trade of votes of a pardon at this point.

HARRIS: Yes, it might be tough to prove there. So...

SCHNEIDER: It might well be.

HARRIS: ... tell me this, Bill. Is it at the -- at first blush now, who gets hurt the most here, the senator or the ex-president?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they both do. I mean, the ex-president has to worry about his reputation as well as his influence over the Democratic Party. I mean, right now, the Democratic Party is really defined by Bill Clinton. His man is in charge of the Democratic National Committee. Al Gore, his vice president, the most recent nominee. His wife is a United States senator.

But she expects to have a career in the Senate and possibly a national career. If the word, the name Clinton becomes synonymous with sleaze, Democrats are going to want to turn the page on the Clintons. They want to say, We don't want to be the Clinton party anymore. We want to find new faces to represent the party. And one of those new faces is not likely to be someone named Clinton.

HARRIS: And the senator could use all six years possibly to do the rehab job if that may...

SCHNEIDER: Well, absolutely. Look she's starting her senate career as, at least, a party to several different investigations. That's not a good way to start your senate career.

HARRIS: Yes, exactly. Bob Schneider -- Bill Schneider, thanks much. Sorry; try to keep up all these names straight I had this morning. Thanks much, Bill Schneider in Washington, as always.



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