Questions Mount in Pardon Saga

ByABC News

Feb. 24, 2001 -- -- The controversy surrounding former President Clinton's last-minute pardons continues to deepen as a federal prosecutor investigates his decision to commute the sentences of four New York men convicted of swindling millions of dollars in government money by setting up a phony religious school.

ABCNEWS has also learned that Clinton's half brother Roger lobbied the White House for a number of clemency grants in the closing days of the administration.

The new revelations come just days after the news that Hugh Rodham, brother of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was paid some $400,000 for his successful efforts to win a pardon for Almon Glenn Braswell, a businessman who was under investigation for money laundering, and a commutation for convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali.

ABCNEWS has learned that, despite urgings from the Clintons to do so, not all of the money has been returned yet. However, Rodham is taking steps to ensure that the $400,000 will be paid back in full.

Commutations for New York Men Questioned

Sources tell ABCNEWS that Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, is now probing the commutations granted by Clinton on his final day as president to Benjamin Berger, Jacob Elbaum, David Goldstein and Kalmen Stern — four Hasidic men who used a fictitious Jewish school to defraud the government of millions of dollars in education grants.

White opened an investigation into Clinton pardons last week after it was revealed that the ex-wife of Marc Rich, a fugitive billionaire whom Clinton freed from prosecution on his last day as president, gave some $1.5 million to Democratic Party causes.

All four of the New York men are from the Hasidic village of New Square, which voted overwhelmingly for the former first lady in her successful Senate run last year. Suspicions were raised that Clinton freed them from prison as a kind of favor in return or that there was a quid pro quo swap of votes for clemency. But ABCNEWS has learned that prosecutors now want to know if money — perhaps political contributions — played any role in Clinton's decision.

"It is tough to make votes fit as 'something of value' under the bribery statute," said one Justice Department source.

Sen. Clinton has acknowledged joining the president at a meeting with two leaders from the community at the White House last December, but denies playing any role in the clemency grants.

Family Affair

Sources tell ABCNEWS Roger Clinton pressed the White House to grant pardons for a number of friends and acquaintances. It is not known whether he spoke to the president directly, but the sources said Clinton knew of his brother's interest in certain pardon applications.

Clinton spokeswoman Julia Payne said the president turned down all of the clemency requests and maintains Roger Clinton, unlike Rodham, was never paid for his efforts.

"Roger did ask the president to consider a list of less than 10 names of friends and acquaintances," Payne told The Associated Press. "None of those pardons were granted nor did he receive any money."

Still, the House Government Reform Committee, which had already launched an inquiry into Clinton's pardon of Rich and Rodham's involvement in the Braswell and Vignali cases, is now investigating whether Roger Clinton was involved in the clemency applications of the two men, as well as two others who were granted pardons and one who was not.

And still more of the Clinton family may be swept into the controversy: Sources from the former president's inner circle told ABCNEWS on Friday that they have heard 'rumors and speculation' that Sen. Clinton's other brother, Tony Rodham, may have also been paid to help win pardons or commutations for certain individuals. They say they have told a lawyer for Rodham they want to know if that is true.

Hillary: 'I Knew Nothing'

Braswell was convicted of mail fraud, perjury and tax evasion in 1983 and sentenced to three years in federal prison and five years probation.

Vignali was convicted in 1994 of cocaine trafficking and had served less than six years in prison when his 14 ½-year sentence was commuted. Sources also tell ABCNEWS there are indications Rodham advocated on behalf of at least one other pardon that was not granted.

Both Clintons have denied knowing Rodham was hired by either of the two men.

"I knew nothing about my brother's involvement in these pardons. I knew nothing about the money for his involvement. I had no knowledge of that whatsoever," Sen. Clinton told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday.

In yet another twist, it was revealed Thursday that Sen. Clinton's former Senate campaign treasurer, William Cunningham III, prepared the pardon applications for Robert Clinton Fain and James Lowell Manning, two Arkansas men who were convicted of tax fraud and also granted clemency on Clinton's last day in the White House.

Cunningham, a law partner of longtime Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, said Friday that he received only a $4,000 fee and never contacted any administration officials or the then-first lady about the requests.

"I did not speak with anyone at the Department of Justice or the White House about the petitions," he said at a news conference Friday morning. "I did not speak with Sen. Clinton or anyone on her staff about the petitions."

Clinton pardoned 140 people and commuted the sentences of 36 others on Jan. 20, his last day as president.

ABCNEWS' Jackie Judd and Chris Vlasto contributed to this report.

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