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Crossfire

Bill Clinton's Brother-in-Law Sets off Another Pardon Controversy

Aired February 21, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, another Clinton pardon controversy. Clinton brother-in-law Hugh Rodham received money to reprehend two on the list. Did the former president know?

Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

There's no doubt that Bill Clinton would find some way to change the subject from the Marc Rich pardon, but nobody thought it would quite this way. Now, he's wrapped up still another pardon controversy.

Reports that his brother-in-law -- Hillary's brother, Hugh Rodham -- received hundreds of thousands of dollars for advocating pardons for two other men, Glenn Braswell and Carlos Vignali. Tonight, an angry Bill and Hillary insist they knew nothing about Rodham's monetary arrangements, and have demanded that he return the money. He did, but you can be sure this won't end the pardon story -- it will just give it new life, starting right here tonight.

Were those pardons justified? Did Hugh Rodham do anything illegal? We will get to our guest and our debate soon, but first we turn to CNN's Bob Franken for the facts and, very shortly, to CNN's Roger Cossack for some legal insights.

Bob, walk us through this. Who are these two guys, and how did they get these pardons?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: First of all, Hugh Rodham is the one in focus here; he's the brother-in-law of President Clinton, brother of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first lady. He has just put out a statement, confirming what was reported on CNN a little over a couple hours ago, that, in fact, he has returned the money that he got for representing two of the people who received pardons by outgoing president Bill Clinton.

In a statement, he says -- its actually his lawyer speaking -- "My client today exceeded to his family's request that he return legal fees earned in connection with pardon requests. My client did not advise President or Senator Clinton of his involvement in his requests." He believes they were unaware until this week of his work on his client's behalf. That followed by a couple of hours a statement from Bill Clinton saying yesterday,

"I became aware of press inquiries that Hugh Rodham received a contingency fee in connection with pardon application on Glenn Braswell and a fee for work on Carlos Vignali's commutation application. Nearly Hillary nor I had any knowledge of such payments and we were deeply disturbed to these reports, and we've insisted that Hugh return any monies received."

So, as we have confirmed, Hugh has returned the money. The two who were pardoned include Almon Glenn Braswell. He was pardoned for a 1983 conviction on mail fraud and making false claims about baldness treatment that he was trying to sell at the time; also convicted of perjury; what made this controversial is that the Justice Department on this day is investigating him for money laundering and tax evasion in connection with his mail order vitamin and health supplement business. The Justice Department says it has decided that these pardons will not inhibit this continuing legal investigation.

And the other one: Carlos Vignali, he was freed after serving six years of a 15-year term for his role in a cocaine trafficking ring. This was one that was quite controversial in California -- it even involved a letter to President Clinton from Roger Mahony, who's the Catholic cardinal out there. Cardinal Mahony says that he wishes he had not sent the letter. But now, the money has been returned, and the controversy continues -- Bill.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Now, Bob, if it's true that Hugh Rodham never approached the president or his wife about Braswell or Vignali, who at the White House did he speak to? Who did he take the case to?

FRANKEN: Well, there was a whole White House structure, including White House counsel Beth Nolan and John Podesta, the chief of staff, Bruce Lindsey, deputy White House counsel -- more importantly, a very close adviser of Bill Clinton since their Arkansas days. they would have been, perhaps, part of the people who would have been talked to.

The important thing here is, that he did not go through what is normal legal procedure which is normally to go through the Justice Department. There is nothing in the law that requires that it occur, but of course there's been quite a bit of controversy about those that have bypassed that normal procedure.

PRESS: Bob Franken, you reported today -- you've talked to the staff at Dan Burton's committee. Are they saying they will now hold a special investigation into Rodham's activities and these two pardons?

FRANKEN: Well, actually, there seems to be a consensus, which is echoed by a source on that committee, which as you know, is quite adversarial to the Clintons in this, that there was nothing illegal. Let us not forget that Rodham is an attorney and an attorney, of course, could be paid a fee for representing his clients in a pardon matter. Of course, this particular attorney happened to the brother- in-law of the then-president.

PRESS: Bob Franken, thank you very much for joining us tonight, and now for insights into the legality of all this, Roger Cossack joins us. Good to see you here -- Tucker?

CARLSON: Now, what would have to be shown, Roger, to move this matter from unseemliness to illegality?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANAYLST: Well, it's the same thing if you find anything illegal with Marc Rich. You have to find that there was some kind of quid pro quo. That is -- I will give you something and you give me a pardon. The fact that it's the president's brother- in-law, who obviously has special access to the president, that's not enough.

Look, it's clear that the president's brother-in-law gets hired in these cases, because he does have special access, and while you use the word unseemly -- and that's probably a very nice choice of words -- I don't think there's anything illegal here.

CARLSON: So, it would have to be Clinton -- to prove that Clinton himself -- the president himself received something in return for these pardons.

COSSACK: That's right. Clinton is the only one that has the ability to give the pardon, so it has to be Clinton, or someone on his behalf -- or, the way these things work -- it could be another person -- a third person. But you have to prove, and a criminal case, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the fix was in. So far there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the fix was in.

Is there evidence that the president's brother-in-law was good guy to get hold of if you wanted to get something done? Well, it looks that way. Was -- is there evidence that this is unseemly and that Hugh Rodham had the ability to get right to the White House and bypass the Justice Department and take care of business? Yeah, that's pretty obvious, but criminal, I don't think so.

PRESS: Roger, granted, it smells; but with all due respect, what lawyers do for a living is represent clients that smell for mony. Right? So, this basically is just the legal profession the way it operates.

COSSACK: Wait a minute. If you are trying to say to me that lawyers are somehow -- that lawyers do fishy things and therefore we shouldn't be surprised...

PRESS: Sometimes.

COSSACK: I'm going to.. I'm...

PRESS: I'll soften up.

COSSACK: You better soften up, because I will take issue with you on that. What I'm telling you in this particular situation -- look, there were a lot of people who got pardons who went through the Justice Department who were represented by lawyers who got on the merits of the case, and did the right thing. We don't hear about those lawyers; we hear about the president's brother-in-law who happens to be a lawyer, who clearly -- him being a lawyer was the least of it. What he happened to be was the president's brother-in- law.

PRESS: Yes, but that's the point I'm getting to. If it were not that Hugh Rodham were Hillary's brother, the fact that a lawyer got money for representing one of these guys -- even if one is a drug dealer, and the other lied about some baldness cure -- would not be news. It would not be an issue, correct?

COSSACK: This becomes a greater issue to talk about -- not the fact that Hugh Rodham's a lawyer, but because Hugh Rodham is the president's brother-in-law and clearly has special access to the president that you and I don't have -- maybe Tucker has. But you and I clearly don't have. So, that's what this story is all about. Is about the notion that special access -- that ability the normal, ordinary person suffering -- from whatever it may be: a conviction or a prison sentence, clearly doesn't get.

PRESS: Real quick question. If Bill Clinton says he did not know about this, what if Beth Nolan told him, you know, by the way, you know, on this one, Hillary's brother is working for this; what if he actually did know? Does that make it illegal?

COSSACK: No, I don't think that makes it illegal, either. I think it has to be quid pro quo. It has to be, listen, this is...

PRESS: Money?

COSSACK: Money or something. Some kind of benefit. And that is not there yet.

CARLSON: Happily, the Burton committee is on the trail. Thank you Roger Cossack. We will be right back with two former independent counsels, Robert Bittman, who worked for Ken Starr, and Michael Zeldin when we return on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE -- another day and another Clinton pardon controversy. Clinton brother-in-law Hugh Rodham received money to represent two on the pardon list. Did Hugh Rodham do anything wrong? Did the president?

Are guest tonight are Robert Bittman and Michael Zeldin.

Mr. Zeldin, apparently, Hugh Rodham is claiming that the president and Mrs. Clinton had no idea that he was representing these two characters that ultimately got pardoned, the guy who was hawking the fake baldness cures and the cocaine trafficker.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: One got commuted, I thought. CARLSON: That's right. The cocaine trafficker got commuted. The cocaine trafficker got pardoned. Is this plausible? I mean this is a lie, isn't it? Why in the world would Clinton pardon them, unless his brother-in-law was involved?

ZELDIN: Well, he could have pardoned them on the merits. There is no way of knowing whether that was true or not true. It seems usual to me that when you hire the brother-in-law of the president, the client believes that there will be influence that can be exercised, so there's a bit of a discount, but I don't think you have any basis in fact, to determine that the president was lying when he said he didn't know and therefore, we can't believe him.

CARLSON: Let's just assume the president didn't know. So he -- isn't he remiss for not nothing that his brother-in-law was involved in this? Wouldn't his White House staff be somehow doing something wrong if they didn't inform him, hey, your brother-in-law is out there, working on behalf of these two people?

ZELDIN: I don't know whether the attorney's names appear on pardon applications to the president would know who counsel are. Of course, we know in the Jack Quinn case, that was the case, but I don't know in the ordinary course, whether that is the case of not. But I think the fault lies much more on Hugh Rodham. He should have advised the president and first lady that he was representing these people. In fact I think, as appearance of conflict matters, he should never have taken these cases, and he certainly should not have taken a case on a contingency basis, which makes it appear as if he will get paid if he wins.

So I think, really, your anger should be directed at Hugh Rodham as a lawyer and setting up his sister in this way.

PRESS: Mr. Bittman, when Bill Clinton's name comes up, some people always of course assume everything is venal and that he is lying. I don't know enough about these pardons to defend them and probably would not defend them, but looking at the case of Carlos Vignali, we know for example, that Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote a letter asking for his pardon; so did Antonio Villaraigosa, former house speaker of the California assembly and now a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles; so did Congressman Xavier Becerra, among many others in the Los Angeles community.

So, there is no evidence really. I agree; it smells for Hugh Rodham to be taking money to lobby his brother-in-law or to pretend to be lobbying for his brother-in-law, but there's no evidence, that even if he took the money, that he is the one that got the pardon, is there?

ROBERT BITTMAN, FORMER DEPUTY INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Bill, look. People write letters all the time for pardons. Every pardon application is just filled with huge attachments of people recommending the pardon.

The problem here, is that it does smell, as you say, and one of the reasons it smells, is because President Clinton did not follow the regular procedure. There is a real procedure for going to the Department of Justice and finding out; was this on the merits? And clearly, these two cases, and if you include Marc Rich case and Mr. Green case -- they were not on the merits because the Department of Justice was vehemently against these pardons, and would have been, had they been asked.

PRESS: Looking at the facts of this case: Jack Quinn got hundreds of thousands of dollars for representing Marc Rich; Hugh Rodham got at least $200,000 for representing Braswell -- we don't know what he got in representing Vignali. I pushed Roger's button earlier when I said, that's what lawyers do. There is nothing illegal about a lawyer representing a client, no matter how venal the client.

BITTMAN: Probably not. It maybe illegal if there was some sort of quid pro quo. Roger said that earlier; clearly here there was a quid and there was a quo. The question is, was there a pro? That is an extraordinary amount of money to pay Hugh Rodham, first of all. This gentleman, as distinguished a lawyer as he may be, he is not known as premier pardon attorney in the United States.

They hired him because of his connections with the Clintons. And you have to understand that.

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Zeldin, one of the things that ought to infuriate every good liberal -- it seems to me -- is that most of the people Clinton wound up pardoning were rich. They weren't the downtrodden and the poor. And I want to read you a line from a lawyer who represents some of the other people -- the 30 co-defendants who were sentenced and imprisoned, along with Vignali, who has now been sprung.

He says, "Go figure. How is it that Carlos Vignali is out eating a nice dinner while my client is still in prison eating bologna sandwiches. Hasn't Clinton here -- not just in this case -- committed the sin against the basic principles of the Democratic Party.

ZELDIN: I don't know about the Democratic Party, but maybe against justice. Generally, that you don't pardon people simply because they are wealthy or have access, but it's a reality of the criminal justice system that people are wealthy and who have access get better representation. You have a problem with the criminal justice system; really not with the Democratic Party -- you should be out there advocating...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: The Justice Department had no knowledge, apparently, that these pardon applications were being brought up.

ZELDIN: It's matter of the wealthy have access to better lawyers, they have more access to decision-makers and they get better justice. That's the reality of the system.

CARLSON: But we are talking about -- again, the Justice Department had nothing to do with this. This is the product of actions of one man: Bill Clinton. We are not talking about justice in general, we're talking about Bill Clinton and that's it.

ZELDIN: No, but we are talking about the process of who gets pardon. I thought you said, there were a lot of people who didn't get pardoned, some people that got pardoned. That's the process and the process is skewed, as is the criminal justice system, generally, to the wealthy. And that's a reality in America that has to be dealt with and maybe your president will deal with it.

PRESS: I want to ask your comments on that too, Mr. Bittman -- the ink wasn't dry on Clinton's statement before Dan Burton had his own statement out. Surprise, surprise. He's got a jump again. A couple of things he says here. Number one:

"Yet again, this makes it look like there is one system of justice for those with money and influence, and one system of justice" -- we all know system of justice is much broader than the Justice Department -- "and one system of justice for everyone else." That's the way it works, we don't like it, but that is and every courthouse in the land -- look at O.J. -- that is the way it works. The guys with the money get the best lawyers, and get off.

BITTMAN: Not necessarily. There is a very legitimate question about whether the then-president of the United States abused his incredible power -- the pardon power, and I think it is a legitimate inquiry to see whether or not people were giving him money or favors or unduly influencing him to subvert the whole pardon process, which is kind of sacrosanct within the executive branch of government. And if the ex-president has done that, then Congress may take some action. I don't know that that's appropriate but I think it is a legitimate inquiry.

PRESS: Now, Burton assess quote -- surprise, surprise -- "We intent to look into this. We intend to ask Mr. Rodham to give us all the details of whom he represented and how much he was paid." Any excuse for another Burton investigation, isn't that what the translation of that is?

BITTMAN: You are picking on Congressman Burton.

PRESS: No, I'm not.

BITTMAN: I mean, former-President Carter criticized the Marc Rich pardon, and I suspect he's going to come out and criticize this very smelly pardon. There's a lot of smell, as you say, and I think that it is legitimate to look into what really happened here and was it an abuse? And if so, what can be done to correct it in the future?

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Zeldin, you heard Mr. Bittman bring out the question of former President Carter, who today called the Marc Rich pardon disgraceful, isn't this the point, the time at which Clinton's many defenders, the many throne-sniffers who surrounded him for the past eight years, have to stand up and admit finally, gee, the other guys were right. This person really is disgraceful in the way he acts and really isn't fit to lead the Democratic Party any longer?

ZELDIN: I think you always answer questions like that on a person-by-person, issue-by-issue basis. I didn't think the Starr prosecution was warranted. I thought that it was abusive and I defended the president because of this.

I will not defend the president's pardoning of Marc Rich. I thought it was wrong. I thought it was inexcusable for the Justice Department to not know who Marc Rich was. The thing that struck me as amazing was Roger Adams, a wonderful man, and Eric Holder, a dedicated servant, saying we didn't know who Marc Rich was. Anyone who has been a prosecutor for as long as we have been prosecutors knew Marc Rich's name and should not have been asleep at the switch.

CARLSON: Oh, that's just passing the buck.

(CROSSTALK)

ZELDIN: I'm not defending the Marc Rich pardon. I'm saying Justice Department was asleep at the switch, too, but it doesn't make your point that this man, President Clinton, is ill-suited to be the leader of the Democratic Party or was wrong and a liar and everything else you accused him of through the course of this program. The pardons were wrong. The Hugh Rodham wrong. The other stuff I'll still defend him on.

CARLSON: But you don't see a pattern here at all?

ZELDIN: I don't see a pattern because I think they are very different issues.

PRESS: For one, I'm glad not to be talking about Marc Rich any more, but I'm bummed to be still talking about the pardons. All right, so I want to get back to the essence of the pardons. No matter how bad they smell, isn't the essence of argument that the Constitution has one unlimited power given. It's to the president of the United States to grant pardons and commutations and there is nothing we can do unless we want to change the Constitution. I mean, that's the bottom line, isn't it?

BITTMAN: That's probably right. There is a question here about whether or not there was bribery. There's a question in the Marc Rich case was there an illegal campaign contribution by a foreign national who not allowed to give campaign contribution. That's a question. Obviously, the U.S. attorney in New York is looking into that.

But I think it is a legitimate inquiry. As I say, you just can't subvert the entire process and remember President Clinton said early in his administration he was going to follow the regular process of going through the Department of Justice. It's a very, very good, honorable process and he -- 12 hours, gave the Department of Justice 12 hours notice in these cases and that just is not sufficient and not right.

ZELDIN: Do you know who Marc Rich was?

BITTMAN: Yes.

ZELDIN: Of course you did. And if it came to your desk, would you have testified as a Justice Department official that you didn't know him?

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: We thank you for you insights. We thank you particularly for getting here on such short notice tonight, help us out with the show. Good to have you here on CROSSFIRE, Bob Bittman, Michael Zeldin. We've got some more news on this breaking story which we will give you when Tucker and I come back with closing comments. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Tucker, we've just learned the latest, legal sources are telling CNN's Eileen O'Connor that Hugh Rodham received a total of about 400 grand for both of those pardons together. Most of the money has been returned by now, but not all yet.

CARLSON: Oh, you mean the original statement wasn't entirely accurate that we got from the Clintons.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: It might be $5.

CARLSON: So, by my count we have here Clinton has pardoned cocaine dealers, money launderers, tax evaders, a drunk airline pilot, and now guy who's hawked fake baldness cures. I mean, just the bottom-line sleaziness of this is really astounding.

PRESS: Which may be the worse crime of all, although I don't know that anybody should go to prison for life for hawking baldness cures. But you know, what's really true here is the Clintons are lucky. They're lucky in this respect. I always felt that Hugh Rodham was a walking time bomb, a walking, ticking time bomb ready to explode. They're lucky they didn't throw in...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: And who caught it him? Was it "The New York Times"? No, it was "The National Enquirer." It's the tabloids. They got the Jesse Jackson love child story and now they have this. I think it's time to start stopping in the supermarket on the way to check out and buy them.

PRESS: Here's to the "Enquirer," but I come back to the bottom line, Tucker, no matter how sleazy some of these pardons were, the president had the power do it and there ain't nothing Dan Burton or Arlen Specter can do it about. They ought to just hang it up.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE, and we'll be back tonight on "THE SPIN ROOM."

CARLSON: With Tony Coehlo. From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: "THE SPIN ROOM," 10:30. See you then. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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