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Burden of Proof

Clinton Pardons: The Closing Chapter of a Presidency

Aired February 23, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET

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

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, the closing chapter to the Clinton presidency chronicles the pardons of 140 people and six commuted sentences. With volumes of Clinton controversy continue to be written, a new investigation is launched in New York, and questions center on the brothers of the former first family and their political influence on presidential pardons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I want to make that 100 percent clear. I don't want you to try to put words in my mouth. I knew nothing about my brother's involvement in these pardons. I knew nothing about his taking money for his involvement. I had no knowledge of that whatsoever.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As far as this White House is concerned, it's time to go forward. I've got too much to do to get a budget passed, to get reforms passed for education, to get a tax cut passed, to strengthen the military than to be worrying about decisions that my predecessor made.

WILLIAM CUNNINGHAM III, SEN. CLINTON'S CAMPAIGN TREASURER: Based upon my professional experience as a former assistant United States attorney and my review of the relevant facts, I concluded that my clients were well-deserving of pardons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

On January 20, a man convicted on charges relating to the transportation of 800 pounds of cocaine walked out of prison. Carlos Vignali, the son of a wealthy political contributor, received a commutation of his 15-year prison sentence. Hugh Rodham, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, was paid $400,000 to lobby the president on behalf of Vignali and Almon Glenn Braswell.

Now, the Clintons say they were unaware that Rodham had been retained by the Vignalis or Braswell. Now Roger Clinton, himself the recipient of a presidential pardon, is being questioned whether he lobbied for others. And new developments this morning -- according to the Associated Press, the U.S. attorney's office in New York is investigating the commutations of four men convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the government under investigation. [sic] Did the former president grant these commutations in exchange for votes for Hillary Clinton from the men's Hasidic community of New Square? The community voted overwhelmingly for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So joining us today from Philadelphia to answer some of these questions is Lawrence Fox, former chair of he American Bar Association ethics committee. And here in Washington, Justin Terrez (ph), Jim Wilson, the lead counsel for the House Committee on Government Reform, and former federal prosecutor David Douglass. In the back, Bethanne Rotatori (ph) and Anita Wymer (ph).

Jim, I want to go right to you. As counsel for the investigative committee, what are you investigative with regards to Roger Clinton?

JIM WILSON, LEAD COUNSEL, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT REFORM: Well, right now, what we have done is we've written a letter asking for some information, and that's -- that's where we are in a lot of these situations right now. What we don't know vast -- you know, greatly exceeds what we do know. And so the responsible step first is to make some inquiries and try and find out a little bit more.

COSSACK: What are you trying to find out, Jim?

WILSON: Well...

COSSACK: We can't leave that dangling with us.

WILSON: Well, what we want to know is -- and you asked about Roger Clinton. Did he, in fact, advocate pardons on behalf of other individuals? We've asked him whether he was paid money for advocating people being -- receiving pardons.

COSSACK: And why do you want to know that?

WILSON: Well, there's a -- there's a pattern that's going on here right now. We were focusing on the Marc Rich issue. We've got a hearing coming up this Thursday. That's the main focus. But it's a sign of a very healthy system that Congress can exercise some oversight and attempt to learn what's going on here. Obviously, there's a great outcry in the public. Media, shows like this are covering these types of situations. And you know, Congress has legitimate legislative reasons to look into these matters.

COSSACK: Let's -- let me tell you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) down the road. Suppose Roger Clinton comes back and he says, "You know what? I got paid $20,000 by these gentlemen, and my job was to see if I could get their applications for pardons in front of the president. Obviously, I'm the president's brother. I may have some special access that" -- you know, "that you don't. But that was as far as it goes. My $20,000 went in my pocket. I never paid anybody. I never bribed anybody. I never did anything illegal, other than use my special access to get to the president and make a plea for these two guys." What's wrong with that?

WILSON: Well, it's very important for -- for me to say and for everybody to understand there's nobody in Congress right now that I know of that's making allegations -- at least from our committee, that's making allegations of criminal wrongdoing. We don't prosecute people. That's for Mary Jo White, for the Department of Justice to look into. But what we do do is conduct oversight of situations such as this and determine whether there are things we need to do.

For example, yesterday we were told that Congress cannot get the presidential library records. Did money go into the presidential library? Are people trying to peddle influence? These are the types of things that lead to, ultimately, the possibility of legislative solutions to problems.

COSSACK: There is a report that indicated that your committee had information -- say criminal investigators, and a very vague -- whoever it is, but you know, your -- that your -- perhaps your committee had some knowledge that Roger Clinton had received money. Do you have any -- that information?

WILSON: Absolutely not. At this stage, we have written to Mr. Clinton, asking questions, but we do not have...

COSSACK: Suppose Mr. Clinton...

WILSON: ... any information.

COSSACK: ... comes back and says, "You know what? Guys, I'd like to help you out, but it's none of your business." Now what do you do?

WILSON: Well, we'll take it from there. But what we hope is that everybody will put their cards on the table and -- and allow folks to see what happened. Then we can move on because that really is the ultimate -- the ultimate objective is to find out what happened and then move on to either legislative solutions or onto the business that is before Congress.

COSSACK: All right, David Douglass, I'm going to ask you a tough question. You're not going to be smiling at me when I'm through with this. There is a claim by David Kendall that he does not have to turn over records for the Clinton library of donators, of people who donated money, because it violates the First Amendment -- has a chilling effect on those people who may have violated -- may have donated money. If they somehow get their -- those records turned over, why, my goodness, it violates their rights under the First Amendment and it may chill people who want to give these donations in the future.

I must tell you that -- I'm not necessarily always right, but I never heard of some kind of a privilege under the First Amendment for these kinds of records. Do you agree or not agree?

DAVID DOUGLASS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Oh, I disagree. I think there is a privilege because contributing money is a form of expression. It supports the communication of ideas. And there's tremendous precedent to protect the contribution of money if it is part of an expression. And certainly, the Clinton library and contributing to it and supporting it is a form of expression. So I think it's a pretty good argument.

COSSACK: Jim?

WILSON: Well, two things. I mean, first of all, from a practical viewpoint, what are they trying to hide? But from...

COSSACK: Well, let's put that aside.

WILSON: But -- but...

COSSACK: Because if it's there, it's there.

WILSON: But -- but let's -- let's move away from that.

COSSACK: All right.

WILSON: A couple of years ago, information that pertained to the presidential birthplace was provided to Congress. There were no similar arguments at that time, and furthermore, a couple years ago, the president's own lawyers were trying to get similar information from Paula Jones's lawyers, so...

COSSACK: Well, we, as lawyers, all know that depends what shoe the -- we were -- happened to be -- what set of shoes we happened to be wearing that day, which is what argument we make. But do you agree with David that...

WILSON: Well, I guess I...

COSSACK: ... there may be a Fist Amendment right...

WILSON: I -- I...

COSSACK: ... not to turn over this information?

WILSON: I think the argument is without merit. I -- I don't think that the cases David Kendall has cited really apply to this situation. And it certainly is the case that there isn't really a dime's worth of difference between money that people give to the presidential library and money they give to politicians for elections because...

COSSACK: I'm going to give you just a few seconds to respond because I have to take a break. Go ahead.

DOUGLASS: And just let me point out that is the concern. That's why we need a Fist Amendment, and that's why expression has to be protected, because otherwise people are unfairly tarred with the burden of "What are you trying to hide when you refuse to tell us things?" That is an important risk of a governmental abuse. It's a Fist Amendment issue. It's the same themes in the Fifth Amendment. That reaction... COSSACK: All right, I...

DOUGLASS: ... that if you had nothing to hide...

COSSACK: I will say this...

DOUGLASS: ... you would tell me is...

COSSACK: I must say that the notion...

DOUGLASS: ... is a dangerous one.

COSSACK: ... that in a real criminal investigation -- and I'm not sure that yours qualifies -- the notion that you would be able to keep contribution records away from the court -- I don't think so.

But let's take a break.

Next week in Washington, congressional investigations will reopen the case of presidential pardons with increased focus on the Clintons and the Rodhams. Don't go away.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

Authorities have ordered the euthanization of the second dog involved in the fatal attack on 33-year-old lacrosse coach Diane Whipple. Whipple was killed on January 26 when two mastiff dogs attacked her. A stay has been granted to determine if the dog is needed as evidence.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CLINTON: With respect to any of these decisions, you'll have to talk with people who were involved in making them, and that leaves me out. I don't know enough to answer your questions, and I don't want to say anything that leads you to believe that I either know something or don't know something because I don't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: The actions of former president Clinton on his last day in the Oval Office continue to cause ripple effects throughout the nation. Next week the House Government Reform Committee will renew its hearings into the Clinton pardons. Chairman Dan Burton sent a letter to the former president's brother, Roger, wanting to know what his motivation was in lobbying for pardons.

Well, Larry, let's talk a little bit now about Hugh Rodham. One of the things we know was that Mr. Rodham was involved in this. Mr. Rodham received a great deal of money. And part of it was based on a relationship with his client in a fee arrangement called a "contingent fee." First of all, tell us what a contingent fee -- tell our viewers what a contingent fee is. I know that they're not always proper in every case, and the benefits and the -- supposedly the burdens of them. What -- what about...

LAWRENCE FOX, FORMER CHAIR, ABA ETHICS COMMITTEE: Well, contingent fees are fees that you get based on the result. Bad result, no fee or very small fee. Huge, wonderful result, you get a big fee. They are said, and it is correct, that they make access to the courts available to lots of people who couldn't otherwise not afford lawyers. And most typically, they show up in personal injury actions and others kinds of plaintiffs' actions where people are seeking to recover financial damages.

They're perfectly appropriate, as long as a couple of things are followed. One, they have to be reasonable. Two, they have to reflect the risks that the individual took. Three, we say that there are no contingent fees available in criminal proceedings and in divorce proceedings. And we have special reasons for those.

In a criminal proceeding area, we say contingent fees are not appropriate because we don't want to put a lawyer in a position where he won't recommend a reduced sentence or a plea bargain because he only gets his fee if the guy is acquitted. I think that the criminal analogy doesn't apply here. And obviously, this is not a divorce proceeding. So in that sense, the idea of somebody other than the president's brother-in-law seeking to earn a fee here on a contingent basis probably wouldn't be so bad.

And you might add, it turned out this fee was really contingent, contingent on the result and contingent on your brother-in-law telling you to return it. So this was the ultimate contingent fee. He got nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

COSSACK: Well, let me just say that it probably wasn't his intent to end up with nothing. I think I can say that fairly. But what about the notion of the brother-in-law saying to an outside person, "You know, here's the deal. You can pay me an enormous amount of money if I win, and you don't have to pay me a dime if I don't win." And obviously -- I mean, I think it's fair to say one of the reasons one would hire Hugh Rodham is he has a special access to the man that has to sign the paper that, clearly, I don't have or you don't have or most people doesn't -- don't have.

FOX: Well, but Roger, that goes to the very issue of whether Hugh Rodham should have taken on this arrangement. Whether he took it on a contingent fee or an hourly basis, whether he took it for free. The point is that we don't know yet whether we ought to treat the pardon process as part of the judicial process, in which case everything that happened here is improper, or whether we're going to talk about it like you did.

You said that Hugh Rodham was lobbying the president. Is this just another example of lobbying? There are lots of people in Congress who are lobbied regularly by people who have special access to them. I read just the other day that Bill Paxon is making millions of dollars because he can walk into the speaker's office with good access and good influence, and people pay for that. If the pardon process is like the legislative process -- it's just a lot of log rolling and a lot of influence peddling -- then it's perfectly OK.

I think the point is that the pardon process shouldn't be like that, that we think it's an extension of our system of justice. As my friend, Margaret Love, the former pardon attorney, says, this is the last step in the system of justice. If that's so, then Rodham had no business taking on a matter before the judge to whom he was related by marriage.

COSSACK: All right, let me go to our guests here.

Jim, Larry makes a good argument. He said, "Look, in some ways, this is part of the judicial process. And if the judicial process is to be believed in -- and we have to have, you know, the belief of the American public that it's fair and neutral -- then this is not the kind of thing we want happening. But in fact, what about this argument? The Constitution says, "You know what? The president of the United States gets to make this decision and doesn't have to ask anybody else about it."

If you -- that doesn't sound to me like the judicial system. That sounds to me like the Founding Fathers said, "You know what? We're going to -- for better or for worse, we're giving one guy the right to do it." So if that's the case, what's wrong with a little lobbying?

WILSON: Well, the president's given a very special power by the Constitution. He should treat it with some reverence. Unfortunately, now, what has happened -- the pardon power is brought into disrepute by what's gone on in the last month. And it's -- it's not anybody's intention to penalize future presidents and encroach on presidential prerogative, but by -- by treating the pardon power the way it seems to have been treated...

FOX: But the pardon power...

WILSON: ... in those last days...

FOX: You know, the pardon power wasn't treated that way by other administrations, either. We've got a lot of examples in the past of people getting pardons because they had political connections or were politically involved with the president. So...

COSSACK: You know, I have to tell you that...

WILSON: Well...

COSSACK: That's an argument that's never worked with me, this notion of others have done it in the past, so therefore it's OK to do it now.

FOX: No, I -- what I'm saying is it's time for us to treat the pardon power as part of the judicial process and end the way it's been treated...

COSSACK: See, I -- I'm not...

FOX: ... up until now.

COSSACK: ... so sure -- David Douglass, tell me -- I'm not so sure -- in light of the -- what the constitutional delegation of power is, that, "Listen" -- and they talked about whether or not -- the Founding Fathers -- whether or not they wanted to have the Senate involved in this, and they rejected that idea and said, "No, we're giving it to the president alone." And yet -- and I think -- isn't Larry's argument more toward -- that Bill Clinton -- that President Clinton didn't really do what -- how we would want him to act as a president, rather than changing the way the system is set up?

DOUGLASS: I agree. I mean, I think one of the real risks here is that the pardon power is somehow impaired because we don't like the way this president exercised it. The pardon power is an act of executive grace. It is society's last chance -- and this is what the Framers said -- to repose in one individual, elected by everyone to say this person deserves some kind of forgiveness. And the problem here is for every of the 133 pardons that were issued, there were probably 10 people who also had -- are similarly deserving. They didn't have the access. They didn't have the influence, probably didn't have the money. But it would be a tragedy if we used this one inept handling of a very important constitutional protection to undermine the system. And it is important that presidents be able to make unpopular pardons, as presidents have done. So I think we have to be very careful not to overreact to what we're talking about her.

COSSACK: Jim...

FOX: But you know what would be great?

COSSACK: Yeah?

FOX: What would be great -- I don't think Congress should get involved in it at all, but I think President Bush could really be a diplomat here and say for his pardon process, he is going to establish certain known procedures. And then each president can either follow them or amend them. But the president himself...

COSSACK: Larry, I just got a few seconds. I want to go to Jim.

In fact, is that the answer?

WILSON: Well, I just wanted to say we had procedures, and that's one -- one of the main reasons we're in this problem right now because there were procedures in place, and the president decided to ignore them. It's -- they have been ignored in the past, but it just seems like in this one situation everybody...

COSSACK: And he has a right to ignore them.

WILSON: He certainly does. But in this case, it seemed like there was almost a feeding frenzy on the last couple of days... COSSACK: Well, you do have this...

WILSON: ... where people thought...

COSSACK: You do have that sense of people just charging the White House...

WILSON: Exactly. And people thought...

COSSACK: ... the last 24 hours.

WILSON: ... the best way with the administration was to do it that way. And sure, what should have happened was...

DOUGLASS: (INAUDIBLE) form of direct access to the presidency. Hillary Clinton...

COSSACK: (INAUDIBLE) presidency by some.

DOUGLASS: By anyone. Hillary Clinton said that wherever she went, she got envelopes and notes -- "I want a pardon. I need a pardon." She took them, she passed them along. It is -- it is an act of grace in this society that there is a chance that...

COSSACK: But...

DOUGLASS: ... that that note gets passed along and someone says to the president of the United States...

COSSACK: It may be...

DOUGLASS: ... "You know what? This nobody languishing in jail"...

COSSACK: Wait. It may be...

DOUGLASS: ... "deserves a pardon."

COSSACK: It may be an act of grace. The question I think we're discussing today is whether it was done very gracefully.

I have to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk with a recipient of a Clinton commutation. Stay where you are.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Why is a 14-year-old high school freshman being held at an Ohio juvenile center?

A: He has been charged with making an e-mail threat against President Bush. Police say he admitted sending the note to impress someone.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSSACK: Before leaving the White House, former president Bill Clinton signed off on 140 pardons and 36 commutations. Now, one of those commutations was granted to Peter Ninemire, who joins us now on the phone.

Peter, tell us about your commutation. Tell us what you were in jail for. We only have a couple of minutes. But the point I want to have you on is so the public will know that not every single commutation and not every single pardon was not -- was not done correctly and certainly was not merited. I think yours was.

Go ahead.

PETER NINEMIRE, RECIPIENT OF CLINTON COMMUTATION: OK. Thank you, Roger, for having me on.

Real quickly, I had -- I was doing a 27-year sentence for cultivation of marijuana. In 19 -- how I applied was through the pardon attorney. But maybe how it came about was what I did while I was in prison. And I and a bunch of other guys...

(AUDIO GAP)

... youth counseling program there. And then in 1997, I began instructing the class, teaching and training inmates how to counsel these kids and...

(AUDIO GAP)

... my time there, I graduated between 80 and 100 guys to counsel. We had 200 kids go through the program. And myself, I had about 350 hours of live counseling. So we're trying to get this program whenever I left to spread throughout other institutions within the Bureau of Prisons, so...

COSSACK: And Peter, how long -- how long were you actually in prison? I know you said you had a 27-year sentence. How long did you serve?

NINEMIRE: I did 10 years.

COSSACK: All right, now, while you were in prison, you started this whole program, this educational program. How did your pardon get before the president? Did you have an attorney?

NINEMIRE: You know, I had an attorney. She stood beside my -- stood beside me the entire time I was in there. But actually...

COSSACK: But what was -- what was her name and what was her position?

NINEMIRE: Marilyn Truby (ph) in Topeka, Kansas. And she was just a federal government public defender. But actually, what I did was just went through filling out the clemency application that you send in to the pardon attorney. And then I believe it went to the White House counsel, and then it went to President Clinton. But it was based on my accomplishments while I was incarcerated.

COSSACK: Did you know -- Peter, did you know that you were going to get the pardon, or was there suddenly this moment when there was a knock on your cell door and they said, "Peter, you're getting out"?

NINEMIRE: They said, "Peter, they want to talk to you down at the infirmary." And I just -- you know, I was nervous, and I went down there, and they -- and they had the doctor with them, thankfully, because I started hyperventilating and whatever. But you know, I -- my sentencing judge wrote a letter to President Clinton and even -- and enclosed it along with my commutation and many other -- application and many other letters of commendation.

COSSACK: All right, well, Peter, thank you for joining us. I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today.

NINEMIRE: OK.

COSSACK: Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching. Join us again Monday for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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