Three recipients of controversial 11th-hour pardons issued by former President Bill Clinton in January 2001 have donated thousands of dollars to the presidential campaign of his wife, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., according to campaign finance records examined by ABC News, in what some good government groups said created an appearance of impropriety.
"It's not illegal," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told ABC News. "But, of course, it's inappropriate and she should return the money. It does raise the appearance that this is payback.
"One can only hope that she wasn't yet aware of who made the donations," said Sloan.
"We have raised over $65 million from over 200,000 people," said Clinton campaign manager Howard Wolfson, adding sarcastically, "I appreciate your bringing the instance of this $5,300 and these three people to our attention."
One of the pardonees who has become a donor to Sen. Clinton is David Herdlinger, a former prosecutor in Springdale, Ark., who, according to press accounts at the time of his pardon pleaded guilty in 1986 to mail fraud after taking bribes to reduce or drop charges against defendants charged with drunken driving offenses.
Now a life and business coach in Georgia, Herdlinger was pardoned by President Clinton in January 2001; he donated $1,000 to Sen. Clinton's presidential campaign in August.
Insurance agent Alfredo Regalado, who gave Hillary Clinton $2,000, was pardoned by her husband for failing to "report the transportation of currency in excess of $10,000 into the United States," according to the Department of Justice.
John Deutch is a different case, having served as President Clinton's CIA director.
Pardoned by President Clinton for charges he had mishandled government secrets -- but before the Department of Justice could file the proper paperwork against him -- Deutch, now a professor at MIT, gave Sen. Clinton the maximum allowable donation, $2,300.
Neither Herdlinger nor Regalado nor Deutch could be reached for comment.
"This is another argument for restoring the presidential public financing system," said Common Cause's Mary Boyle. "Is there an appearance here that this is kind of a payback for the pardons? I'm sure it could look that way for some people. But they're exercising their free and perfectly legal right to give a campaign contribution."
The 177 pardons and commutations President Clinton issued in the closing hours of his presidency in January 2001 ignited a firestorm of controversy, most especially the one issued for financier Marc Rich, considered the biggest tax cheat in history, whom Rudy Giuliani had successfully indicted as a U.S. attorney.
But other controversies more closely involved Hillary Clinton.
In August 2000, during her first Senate run, Clinton met with the Hasidic community in New Square, where many members were working to obtain clemency for four members of their community who had been convicted of stealing tens of millions of dollars from the state and federal government.
The town overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, and in January 2001, the four men were granted clemency. Hillary Clinton had met with members of the community in August 2000, but said the issue did not come up.
The subject of clemency was raised in a December 2000 meeting between President Clinton and Sen.-elect Clinton, and leaders of the village, but the outgoing-first lady said at the time she had no opinion.
In June 2002, then-U.S. attorney James Comey closed an investigation into the matter with no action against anyone.
Hillary Clinton's brother Hugh Rodham , was paid approximately $200,000 from Almon Glenn Braswell, whom President Clinton pardoned for mail fraud and perjury, as was Carlos Vignali, whose sentence for cocaine trafficking was commuted. News of his involvement in the pardon controversy prompted an outrage in Washington, D.C.
"I knew nothing about my brother's involvement in these pardons," Sen. Clinton said at the time. "I knew nothing about his taking money for his involvement."
The Clintons asked Hugh Rodham to return the cash, which he did.
Hillary Clinton's brother Tony Rodham was paid $244,769 over 2½ years by a carnival company, United Shows of America, owned by Edgar and Vonna Jo Gregory. The Gregorys had been convicted of bank fraud and were seeking pardons. Tony Rodham has said he mentioned their pardon application to his brother-in-law, who ultimately granted the Gregorys a pardon. But Rodham said he was not paid for anything having to do with the pardon.
The estate of the Gregorys sued Tony Rodham this year, saying $107,000 if the money he received was a loan. Rodham and the estate settled the case in September.