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CNN Today

New Developments in Clinton Pardon Controversy

Aired February 23, 2001 - 4:05 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: New twists this afternoon to the Clinton pardon mess. Hillary Rodham Clinton is back in the spotlight, just one day after insisting she played no role in the numerous pardons.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. attorney's office in New York is looking into the former president's commutations of prison sentences for four Hasidic members -- four members of a Hasidic Jewish community who were serving time for embezzlement and fraud.

Prosecutors reportedly are trying to determine whether Hasidic votes for Senator Clinton were exchanged for the pardons. Federal officials refuse to confirm an investigation is in progress on that.

In yet another development, congressional investigators want to know whether former President Clinton's brother Roger was paid to seek clemency for some friends. A spokeswoman for Clinton says Roger Clinton was not paid, and that he only made a personal appeal for five or six friends. All of those requests were denied.

Now, joining us to try to sort all of this out is our senior political analyst Bill Schneider who's joining us from Washington.

Bill, let's go back first to those Hasidic Jewish leaders serving time in jail. How did they change the story?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, so far this story has had three major elements: one has been cash, was money paid for pardons; the second was connections, where the brothers of the first lady and the president used to influence people in the White House; and third, the process, why was the president secretive and evasive in avoiding normal Justice Department procedures. Do these people, various people, deserve a pardon?

Now, we have a fourth element, which is votes. That hasn't been there before. The question is what we know is that the members of this, the leaders of this Hasidic sect, met with the president and the first lady in the White House, they were ultimately granted pardons, and that small community voted almost unanimously for Hillary Rodham Clinton for Senator.

So, the question is being raised, was there some deal made for votes. FRAZIER: Now, as if that isn't a potent enough question, Bill, there is also the issue of the treasurer of Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign in New York, William Cunningham III. How do these Arkansas defendants find their way to a New York City lawyer associated with Mrs. Clinton?

SCHNEIDER: Well, that's the connections question. There was not a great deal of cash involved in that one, and they may have been deserving of a pardon, but how did they get to him? Well, what he said a few minutes ago this afternoon in his press conference was that, they retained me because of my abilities and my character, it had nothing to do with my role in the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign for Senate, where of course, he was treasurer. The Senator Clinton described him yesterday as a fine lawyer.

Well, that's a little bit suspect. I mean, it doesn't pass the smell test. I mean, they hired this lawyer from New York to process the papers, is there no connection between the fact that he was the treasurer of her campaign, and that he might have been able to exercise some undue improper influence with the White House in getting these pardons? That seems a little bit strange that they would have found their way to him.

And apparently, they did it through other connections with Harry Thomason, a friend of theirs -- because they come from Little Rock -- who referred them to Harold Ickes, who then referred them to this attorney. There are a lot of connections here.

FRAZIER: You're helping us find our way through these connections, Bill. And does all of this then eclipse what we learned yesterday with Hugh Rodham?

SCHNEIDER: What we still don't know about Hugh Rodham was -- he was paid $200,000, which he has then returned. What was he paid $200,000 to do? He claims he didn't speak to the president. They say they didn't speak to him. He didn't speak to his sister, the then- first lady. What was the $200,000 in payment for? We still don't know.

FRAZIER: Well, this raises a larger question then in the ultimate scheme of things, Bill. Are we likely to see the former president appearing before congressional investigators looking into all of this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they can't force him to testify. President Ford did testify in the case of the Nixon pardon, because he felt that he had to get his story out there. And I think President Clinton -- former President Clinton feels he has to also.

He wrote an article in the "New York Times" on Sunday, which raised more questions than it answered, and I think that ultimately, he may decide that he has to go and testify before Congress, if only to explain why some of these controversial pardons were granted. What was the justification for them?

A pardon is supposed to be granted on the merits. The idea is that an injustice was done, and a pardon is there to correct the injustice. But some of these cases are so strange and inexplicable that we have to conclude, maybe there was influence peddled. Maybe there was cash or votes exchanged.

If it really was on the merits, the former president has got to explain that and make it clear.

FRAZIER: Bill, thank you. Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst coming to us today from Washington.

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