WASHINGTON – Two of President-elect Joe Biden’s top Cabinet picks played key roles in a clemency scandal that shook Los Angeles and Minnesota two decades ago, when the early release of a convicted cocaine trafficker raised complaints of political favoritism and drew sharp condemnations from prosecutors.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whom Biden has announced he intends to nominate as health and human services secretary, and Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick for homeland security secretary, were among several prominent Los Angeles figures who reached out to the White House about the sentence of Carlos Vignali, whose father was a wealthy entrepreneur and major Democratic donor in California.
President Bill Clinton commuted Vignali’s sentence on his last day in office in 2001 – one of 176 last-minute acts of clemency he granted that were the subject of ongoing investigations for years.
The episode drew criticism that the process favored the politically and financially connected – an issue resonant once again after President Donald Trump’s recent pardon of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his contemplation of similar acts for other friends and allies.
The Vignali commutation drew intense scrutiny because a group of well-connected California Democrats who were friendly with Vignali’s father, Horacio – including Becerra, a congressman at the time, and Mayorkas, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles at the time – communicated with White House officials about the matter before Clinton acted. Vignali’s father also paid $200,000 to Hugh Rodham, the brother of then then-first-lady Hillary Clinton, to help secure Vignali’s release.
A 2002 investigation by the GOP-led House Committee on Government Reform found that the commutation was extended despite objections from the Justice Department’s pardon office and concluded that it “sent a message that there is a double standard of justice between the rich and the poor.”
At the time, Democrats on the committee criticized the investigation as partisan and issued a minority report contesting some of its findings, through none dealt with Becerra or Mayorkas.
Prosecutors and the judge involved in Vignali’s case have said they were deeply troubled by what they saw as political influence employed to help a convicted drug dealer.
In an interview Tuesday, the Minnesota federal judge who sentenced Vignali said he remains distressed – even two decades later – by Clinton’s grant of clemency.
“It was outrageous,” said U.S. District Judge David Doty, recalling that Vignali expressed no remorse at trial for his involvement in the criminal enterprise.
Doty said that he wrote a letter to the Justice Department opposing the commutation, and that the clemency had been especially galling to him because while Vignali was freed, his Black co-defendants in the case remained in jail. He said the circumstances suggested that Vignali benefited from his financial advantages.
“We have simple words to describe justice. In this case, it just seemed wrong to commute Vignali when the others were not getting that,” said Doty, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
Margaret Love, who ran the Justice Department’s pardon office under President George H.W. Bush and in the first five years of the Clinton presidency, said Vignali’s commutation exemplified “the complete breakdown of the pardon process,” when the Clinton administration made decisions without the traditional participation of the pardon office.
Love said in an interview that it was understandable for Becerra to inquire about a constituent as a member of Congress, but that Mayorkas’s involvement was “harder to understand,” noting that his office had no role in the case.
A spokesman for Becerra did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, he has said he did nothing wrong in making contact with the White House, noting that he never requested Vignali receive a commutation, only that the case be carefully considered.
Mayorkas issued a statement shortly after the commutation apologizing for his phone call to the White House, which he called a “mistake.” He has said he did not know the details of the case and did not intend to advocate on Vignali’s behalf, but was merely inquiring about its status.
A representative for Mayorkas noted that he reiterated his regret over the episode in sworn testimony before the Senate in 2009 when he was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, adding that he stands by that testimony. He noted that Mayorkas was confirmed on a unanimous voice vote to that position.
A spokesman for the Biden transition team declined to comment.
Neither Vignali, now 49, nor his father, Horacio Vignali, 75, responded to requests for comment.
After his release from a federal prison in Safford, Ariz., Vignali has been affiliated with some of his father’s parking lot companies, public records show. In 2018, he filed paperwork with the state of California to form a company that he indicated would be in the cannabis business. Records show that the company’s registration has been suspended.
Vignali was convicted in 1994 of involvement in a drug ring that shipped hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minnesota, where it was converted to crack and sold on the streets, according to media accounts and the congressional report. He was one of about 30 members of a drug trafficking circle jointly indicted by federal officials after what was billed as the largest drug investigation in Minnesota history.
He was convicted of three counts, including conspiring to manufacture, possess and distribute cocaine. Because of his commutation, Vignali served six years of a 15-year sentence. Many of his co-defendants were not released and continued to serve long terms, according to the Los Angeles Times and the congressional report.
According to the House investigation, Horacio Vignali began a full-court press to build ties to California politicians and lobby for his son’s release soon after he was found guilty.
An Argentine immigrant who became wealthy in real estate, Horacio Vignali had large property holdings in Los Angeles, as well as parking lots and body shops – and a $9 million mansion that previously belonged to the actor Sylvester Stallone, the report recounts. He also began making large campaign donations to California politicians and hosting well-known outdoor barbecue fundraisers.
Among his political contributions: $11,000 to Becerra’s political action committee, as well as nearly $6,000 to Becerra’s campaigns for Congress and his unsuccessful 2001 Los Angeles mayoral bid, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In November 2000, Becerra wrote to the White House asking for a “full evaluation of this case to determine if justice has been achieved,” noting that Vignali’s parents were “dear friends” and “solid, upstanding members of the Los Angeles community” convinced of their son’s innocence, according to the House report.
Becerra then made a series of phone calls to top administration officials, including a phone call to the White House Counsel’s Office on Jan. 19 – the day before Clinton left office – to inquire about the case, the inquiry found.
Becerra has said he never pressed for the commutation, but merely asked that the case be carefully considered – including whether the sentence was overly harsh. He said he was moved by the pleas of Vignali’s father and other respected members of the community who also supported leniency, including Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the archbishop of Los Angeles. (Mahoney later said he regretted his involvement.)
“What I wanted to know was, ‘Can you give him some information?’ ” Becerra told the Los Angeles Times in 2001 of his last-minute call to the White House. “If I was going to try to put pressure on, I would have tried to call the president.”
After the Vignali episode, Becerra was reelected to Congress eight more times, and then nominated by California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and confirmed to the job of state attorney general in 2017. He was elected to that role two years later.
It was Becerra who brought the Vignali case to the attention of Mayorkas.
According to the House probe, Becerra called Mayorkas in early 1999 and asked him to look into Vignali’s case. Mayorkas then twice called prosecutors in Minnesota to inquire about the matter, one of whom told him Vignali was a “major player” and “bad news,” the congressional investigation found.
Over the next two years, Mayorkas had a number of meetings with Horacio Vignali, who told him of his anguish over his son’s imprisonment, Mayorkas later told congressional investigators.
As Clinton was preparing to leave office in January 2001, Mayorkas told investigators, Horacio Vignali asked him to call the White House and inquire about his son’s pending petition for commutation.
Mayorkas told investigators that he made the call after consulting with the Justice Department about whether such contact was allowed and receiving permission.
He said he told White House lawyers that he did not know the details of Vignali’s case, but that he knew his parents to be good people.
White House lawyers told the committee that they came away believing Mayorkas supported the move – which they found notable, given his role in law enforcement – and that it weighed heavily in their decision to recommend granting the petition.
The congressional inquiry concluded that Mayorkas had “acted inappropriately” by talking to the White House about a case with which he had no involvement. However, the report added, of those involved in the episode, he was also the one who “most clearly accepted responsibility and apologized for his actions.”
A month after Vignali was released from prison, Mayorkas wrote a letter to his staff in which he said that the phone call to the White House had been a “mistake” and that he was “sorry” he had made it.
“I allowed my compassion for the parents to interfere with my judgment,” he wrote.
During his 2009 confirmation process, Mayorkas testified that he had not intended for the White House to conclude that he necessarily supported the commutation. He said his comments were “construed, and not unfairly so” as a sign that he backed the move. He reiterated that his outreach had been a “mistake.”
In 2014, he was confirmed again by the Senate to the role of deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. His current nomination has been backed by various figures in law enforcement, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Bill and Hillary Clinton released statements in February 2001 saying they were unaware that Rodham, the then-first-lady’s brother, had been paid by Horacio Vignali, and received another $200,000 related to a separate pardon.
They said they were “deeply disturbed” and had “insisted” that Rodham return the funds.
In an interview Monday, Rodham said he paid back the money long ago and noted that Vignali has not been charged with crimes since his release from prison. “It seems to me we did everything correctly,” he said.
He said he spent about four months researching the case and submitted an application based on the facts and the law, adding that he believes the case was misrepresented by Republican lawmakers for political purposes.
“I believe there should be a place in the law for clemency and mercy,” Rodham said.
He said the Vignali commutation was different from Trump’s willingness to pardon his own friends and allies – a posture he said threatened the entire system.
“He will make it so that you won’t be able to do it anymore,” Rodham said.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Maria Sachetti contributed to this report.