President-elect Barack Obama's key political appointments continue to hearken back to Pardongate, the 2001 scandal that resulted in a bipartisan Congressional committee investigation of influence peddling in the White House during the waning days of the Clinton administration.
On Dec. 2, City Paper reported that Obama's pick for U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, who was criticized for his role in the pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich, took a "similarly irresolute position" in the commutation of the sentence of convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali that the committee found "disturbing."
On Dec. 5, the Washington, D.C. Bureau of the L.A. Times, reacting to the announcement that Obama tapped U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra as U.S. trade representative, examined Becerra's role in the Vignali chapter of Pardongate--as well as Holder's. The Times reported that Becerra received more than $14,000 in political donations from Vignali's father, Horacio Vignali, while lobbying the White House for a commuted sentence. In all, Horacio Vignali donated more than $160,000to a number of local, state and national elected officials from Los Angeles.
Holder and Becerra, who is from Los Angeles, are not the only Clinton allies involved in Obama's future plans. Former U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both members of the Obama transition team, also lobbied for early release of Vignali, who was convicted by a jury following a wiretap investigation. The committee report found Mayorkas' actions were "inappropriate given his position." Villaraigosa, who was the first to write to the White House in 1996, wrote a letter that the committee deemed "at best, hyperbole, at worst misleading."
Becerra, according to the report, was particularly persistent in his efforts on behalf of the Vignalis: he approached Mayorkas; he approached Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams; and he wrote to President Clinton and followed up with a call to the White House. Unlike many others associated with the scandal, Becerra has never apologized, and has stated in the past that he urged review of the matter, not early release. However, former associate White House counsel Meredith McCabe, in her statements to the committee, characterized Becerra's efforts as "advocacy," according to the report.
The Vignali chapter of Pardongate took an ugly turn after the Congressional report was issued, when Drug Enforcement Administration documents surfaced that showed that federal law enforcers believed Horacio Vignali was involved with a major drug-trafficking conspiracy dating back to the 1980s, along with Los Angeles grocery king George Torres.
Like Vignali, Torres was never charged with a major drug crime, though he is currently facing federal racketeering chargesin federal court in Los Angeles for, among other things, conspiracy to commit murder.