Holder to Face Grilling Over Clinton Pardons

Hillary Clinton may have received mostly cordial treatment in her confirmation hearing Tuesday, but Attorney General nominee Eric Holder may not be so lucky. At tomorrow's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican senators will call witnesses who will testify on the 1999 clemency of members of a violent Puerto Rican Nationalist Group, setting the stage for what may become a grilling over Holder's actions when he was Deputy Attorney General overseeing pardon recommendations to President Bill Clinton.

Holder could again face questions over controversies such as the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and the prison sentence commutation of a cocaine dealer. Critics said the Justice Department's handling of the pardon process, under Holder, broke down in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week, based on previously undisclosed documents and new interviews, that Holder repeatedly pressed his subordinates at the Justice Department to drop objections to the 1999 clemency request of 16 members of two violent Puerto Rican nationalist groups. Clinton's decision to commute their sentences angered law enforcement officials and families of victims who said they were never consulted.

Joseph Connor, whose father Frank was killed in 1975 when members of the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) bombed a New York restaurant, is expected to testify at the Holder confirmation hearing.

Also expected to testify is former FBI special agent Richard Hahn who investigated FALN.

Meanwhile, one of Holder's former critics as well as other former Bush officials have come out in support of his nomination. James Comey who led the investigation into Rich and later became Deputy Attorney General in the Bush administration wrote a letter of endorsement to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying Holder's errors in the Rich pardon process "may actually make him a better steward of the Department of Justice because he has learned a hard lesson about protecting the integrity of that great institution from political fixers."

Pardon Issue Could Embarass Holder

Two other deputies attorney general under Bush, Paul McNulty and Larry Thompson, have also endorsed Holder's nomination.

While the pardon issue is not expected to derail Holder's nomination, the questioning could prove embarrassing to Holder, who previously endured a Congressional skewering on the topic back at a 2001 hearing. Holder testified that he regretted not paying more attention to the pardon process as it unfolded, and failing to foresee possible controversy.

"If I'd known, obviously, that it was going to turn out this way, I mean, I certainly would have done things differently," he said in response to a question about the pardon of Rich.

Though she was not asked about it Tuesday, Hillary Clinton's brother Hugh Rodhamaccepted over $200,000 in fees to lobby on behalf of the convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali, whose sentence was commuted by President Clinton. Vignali, who was convicted on cocaine charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison, is the son of a major campaign contributor, Horacio Vignali. It was Horacio who hired Hugh Rodham to lobby the White House for his son's clemency. At the request of the Clinton's, Hugh Rodham later returned the fees, his attorney said at the time.

Roger Adams, the former Justice Department pardon attorney, had strongly recommended that Vignali's clemency petition be denied. Adams did not wish to comment for this story, but the Los Angeles Times reported that Adams said he was asked by Republican staffers to testify at tomorrow's hearing, but that he said "I have informed them I have absolutely no interest in testifying, as there is no more that I can say."

A 2002 Congressional report by the Republican-controlled House Reform Committee concluded that Holder took an "irresolute position" on the Vignali case "allowing his subordinate to oppose the Vignali commutation while refusing to go on the record against a commutation the President apparently wanted to grant and the President's own brother-in-law supported." The report stated that rather than signing-off on the Adam's recommendation for denying clemency, Holder instead returned it to Adams unsigned. Adams then forwarded it to the White House with his own signature because he "believed it was important for the Justice Department to be on the record as opposed to the Vignali commutation," according to the Congressional report.

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