Justice Ready to Help Congress on Pardons

As controversy over the clemency grants made on his final day in office continued to dog former President Clinton, Attorney General John Ashcroft said today he is ready to help Congress investigate the matter.

Stopping short of endorsing the efforts of some Republicans to grant immunity to the ex-wife of a fugitive billionaire pardoned by Clinton, Ashcroft pledged to cooperate with Congress.

"I respect the right of the United States Congress to get information and to grant immunity in order to get information," Ashcroft said. "It's with that in mind that I would say that I would be very pleased to work with the department to cooperate with the Congress whenever possible."

Clinton remains under pressure to justify his pardon of financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife refused to testify before the House Government Reform Committee last week. Denise Rich cited her fifth amendment right to avoid incriminating herself in avoiding questions about her generous support for Democratic campaigns, and for the Clinton presidential library.

New Impeachment?

Senate hearings on the Rich pardon begin this week as senators debate whether to call the former president himself to testify on Capitol Hill.

Despite Ms. Rich's plea, House investigators say they will continue to dig for more details on her contributions. A House Government Reform Committee spokesman said investigators on Tuesday will subpoena records relating to Ms. Rich's financial transactions from two of her banks, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton library foundation.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., even suggested this weekend that a member of the House may introduce new articles of impeachment against the former president.

"I was surprised to find that you could impeach a president after he was out of office," Specter told Fox News Sunday, adding, "I don't think that trial would take too long."

In addition, a U.S. attorney in Manhattan reportedly may launch a criminal probe of donations and gifts the Clintons received from Denise Rich.

Newsweek magazine reported U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who was outraged that Clinton issued the pardon without consulting her, is set to look into whether Ms. Rich was used to funnel illegal contributions to the Clintons from her ex-husband, who has renounced his U.S. citizenship and is living in Switzerland.

Trafficker Pardon Raises New Questions

As the Rich issue continued to simmer, a new controversy emerged over Clinton's decision to pardon a convicted drug trafficker.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that Clinton ordered convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali released from prison after serving only six years of a 15-year term. Several low-level drug dealers were among the more than 175 people pardoned or receiving commuted sentences from Clinton, but Vignali doesn't fit that profile.

Prosecutors vigorously opposed Vignali's release and were both outraged and baffled when he walked free. U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, who tried and sentenced the man, was also surprised by the move.

‘Central Player’

Doty told ABCNEWS Vignali "was a central player" in a drug ring that shipped hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. Doty added that Vignali "did nothing positive" before or during his jail term to warrant clemency.

Margaret Love, former U.S. pardon attorney under Attorney General Janet Reno, also told ABCNEWS the pardon seemed unusual.

"It was very surprising to me that this case was granted because it does not appear on the facts to be the kind of case the department would recommend," Love said.

A Clinton spokesman said the decision was based, in part, on pleas from Los Angeles Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra and not on thousands of dollars in political contributions made by Vignali's father, Horacio Vignali — a major donor to Democratic campaigns and charitable causes.

A spokeswoman for Becerra, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles, said the congressman was simply one of many Hispanic leaders who contacted the White House on Vignani's behald. The Times reported today the lobbying effort to free Vignali was also joined by, among others, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

The Times reports letters written on Vignali's behalf suggested he "was wrongly convicted and that his case deserved a careful review by the White House."

ABCNEWS' Josh Gerstein and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.