Who is Carlos Vignali?

ByJosh Gerstein

Feb. 21, 2001 -- January 20th was President Clinton's last day in office. It was also Carlos Vignali's last day in jail.

Vignali was freed by Clinton after serving less than six years of a 14-and-a-half year sentence for cocaine trafficking. The president's move stunned detectives on the case.

At Vignali's 1994 trial, prosecutors played a rap video in an effort to tie him to the gangster culture. He was an aspiring rapper, known as C-Low, with the group Brownside. But the recordings that sent Vignali to jail were federal wiretaps, in which police say he talked about shipping cocaine and money between Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

Prosecutors say Vignali was a key player in a 30-member drug ring.

So why did President Clinton choose to cut short Vignali's prison term, over the objections of prosecutors?

Prosecutors opposed the Vignali commutation, even though it was processed through normal channels at the Justice Department.

The answer seems to lie in a six-year campaign by Vignali's father, Horacio, an affluent Los Angeles real estate developer, to win his son's freedom.

After his son was arrested, the elder Vignali, who is active in Latino causes, stepped up his donations to L.A. area politicians, giving more than $160,000. Vignali's father persuaded at least nine prominent political figures to contact the White House on his son's behalf.

Victim of ‘Guilt By Association’?

In one letter, the former speaker of California's state assembly actually proclaimed Vignali innocent, saying he was "falsely linked" to the drug ring and the victim of "guilt by association." The lawmaker, Antonio Villaraigosa, who is currently running for mayor of Los Angeles, now says he made a mistake, as does L.A.'s Cardinal, who also wrote to the White House.

Aides to former President Clinton say he was persuaded by pleas from the Hispanic community, and that political donations had nothing to do with it. But four weeks after the commutation, there's still no explanation of why Clinton thought Vignali had been treated unfairly.

Back in Minneapolis, some like drug investigator Tony Adams say the politicians who backed Vignali are hypocrites. And some who were part of Vignali's drug gang are still serving a 20-year sentence.

"Politicians always get in front of this camera and say we're trying to take drugs off streets, put dope dealers in jail," Adams says. "Well, you just let one out — a big one."

As some of his counterparts sit in jail questioning the fairness of the pardon process, Carlos Vignali now passes his time at his father's million-dollar Malibu home.

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