WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Eric H. Holder Jr. goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for confirmation as U.S. attorney general, he is expected to face tough questions about the controversial Clinton-era pardons he helped to facilitate as deputy attorney general.
Questions will likely include inquiries about his role in the high-profile pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and his failure to rebuff the Clinton White House in pardoning 16 members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group that was labeled as a terrorist organization in the United States.
But it is his role in another clemency case, involving drug dealing in Minnesota, that has prompted questions among Minneapolis law enforcement officials and others.
The case centers on the 2001 sentence commutation of Carlos Vignali, a drug dealer convicted in 1994 for his role in a narcotics operation that delivered more than 800 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minneapolis.
At the time, the Justice Department’s pardon attorney strongly recommended that President Bill Clinton deny Vignali’s commutation, but Holder failed to sign the letter that went to the White House, arguably giving the rejection recommendation less weight.
In the end, Clinton had Vignali released from prison early, serving less than half of his 14 ½-year sentence, a term shorter than the defendants who cooperated with the investigation.
“I’d like to know why [Holder didn’t sign the recommendation],” Sgt. Gerhard Wehr of the Minneapolis Police Department said in an interview with MinnPost Wednesday. Wehr worked on the Vignali case for almost three years.
“The president can pardon whoever he wants, but it’s just the way it happened that was disheartening… they circumvented the whole system,” Wehr said.
Holder has denied any wrongdoing, and did not return a request for comment.
Since his nomination as attorney general, Holder’s role in the Vignali commutation has received renewed attention, including in a detailed report recently in the Los Angeles Times.
Big drug case
The Vignali case was one of the largest drug investigations in Minnesota history, requiring wiretaps, undercover surveillance and coordination between the Minneapolis and Los Angeles police departments and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. His sentence commutation led to a furor in Minnesota, prompting the judge on the case to speak out against the move.
“Carlos deserved what he got… I hit him in the middle, not in the low end… And I didn’t max him out,” U.S. District Judge David S. Doty told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2001, referring to the length of Vignali’s original sentence.
A 2002 Congressional report, issued by a Republican-led committee, described Holder’s failure to sign off on Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams’ recommendation to deny commutation as “disturbing.”
It faulted Holder for “allowing his subordinate to oppose the Vignali commutation while refusing to go on the record against a commutation the president apparently wanted to grant and the president’s own brother-in-law supported.” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother, Hugh Rodham, was paid $204,000 to lobby for Vignali’s release.
Holder’s signature on the recommendation was not required, but the report suggested that its absence was an attempt to “please his superiors in the White House while trying to maintain some credibility as a prosecutor serious about law and order.”
The report noted that the White House was complaining to the Justice Department at the time about receiving too many clemency denial recommendations.
The report concluded that the Vignali commutation “mocks law enforcement.” Tony Adams, the Minneapolis narcotics detective who played a key role in apprehending Vignali and who was shot at during the course of the investigation, said that the pardon “more or less tells us that America’ system has been bought if you have money.”
The Obama transition team did not return a request for comment on Holder’s role in the case.
Critics of Holder’s potential promotion to attorney general contend that it is not just one case but the totality of his work on the pardons that indicates he is a man too-easily swayed by the will of the White House.
In a Jan.6 speech on the floor of the Senate, GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania reiterated why he believed it’s important to appoint an attorney general who wouldn’t simply be a “yes man” to the president.
“The attorney general is unlike any other cabinet officer whose duty it is to carry out the president’s policy. The attorney general has a corollary, independent responsibility to the people to uphold the rule of law,” said Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel. “After our recent experience with Attorney General Gonzales, it is imperative that the attorney general undertake and effectuate that responsibility of independence.”
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned in 2007 amid accusations that hiring and firing decisions had been politically motivated, allegations that were later generally confirmed by an internal investigation.
Holder’s hearing today, however, is unlikely to derail his confirmation. At the same time that worries have been voiced over his role in the pardon and clemency cases, there has been a strong effort to rally bipartisan support for the former judge and long-time public official.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reminded Republicans last week that “not a single Republican member of the Senate voted against the nomination of Alberto Gonzales. Nor has a single Republican member of the Senate said they were wrong to support that nomination. By whatever standard they used to make their decision to support Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general, the nomination of Eric Holder far, far exceeds it.”
Republicans supporting Holder include William Barr and George Terwilliger, who served as attorney general and deputy attorney general, respectively, under President George H.W. Bush, and Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI.
Todd Jones, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Vignali and spoke out vehemently against the commutation at the time, also said that he supports Holder’s nomination.
“Eric is a great nominee, and it is unfortunate in my view that all of the focus is on the Pardongate issues,” Jones said.
Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who served as the attorney for Hennepin County before becoming Minnesota’s senator in 2007, said that she knew about the Vignali case but was not aware of the details of Holder’s role.
“I expect we will learn more when the Judiciary Committee holds its confirmation hearing,” Klobuchar told MinnPost Tuesday.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.