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Larry King Live

Were Bill Clinton's Last-Minute Pardons Unpardonable?

Aired February 26, 2001 - 9:00 p.m. ET

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

LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, a big push to get hold of the Clinton library donor list. And another pardon figure says she'll take the Fifth. Meanwhile, the president's brother, Roger, was he paid to lobby for a convicted drug trafficker? And Senator Clinton takes a hit at the polls from New York voters.

Joining us from Minneapolis, Ron Meshbesher, Carlos Vignali's attorney during his trial and sentencing, speaks out about his former client's controversial pardon. Also in Minneapolis, former U.S. Attorney Todd Jones, who investigated the Vignali case.

In Naples, Florida. we'll hear for the first time publicly since the pardons from the outspoken conservative and Empower America co- founder, Bill Bennett; in Atlanta, former Carter administration White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan; in West Palm, GOP strategist Ed Rollins.

And then in the nation's capitol, chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary, Julian Epstein. With me in Los Angeles, Susan McDougal's attorney, Mark Geragos; from New York, Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas; and back in Washington, former federal prosecutor Barbara Olson. They are all next on LARRY KING LIVE.

One of the more controversial pardons was that of Carlos Vignali, the known drug trafficker, who was pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office. Joining us to discuss that in Minneapolis are Ron Meshbesher, who was one of Carlos Vignali's defense attorneys. He was not his pardon attorney, and Todd Jones, a former U.S. attorney, was an assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota when this case was first investigated.

And you recommended against, am I right, Todd?

TODD JONES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: That's correct, Larry.

KING: Why?

JONES: Well, as part of the normal course, the pardon attorney's office of the Department of Justice will ask for input from the district of conviction, and being familiar with the facts, and understanding the dynamics of this case, we were pretty adamant in our objection to any clemency being given.

KING: And what he got was a commutation of sentence; is that correct?

JONES: That's correct.

KING: From 15 years to six years that he had served? A lot of people, Ron Meshbesher -- now, you were not his pardon attorney; right?

RON MESHBESHER, CARLOS VIGNALI'S ATTORNEY: That's right.

KING: Why did so many people plead for him? So many people in California, and including clergymen.

MESHBESHER: I don't know the reason. I had nothing to do with the pardons. I didn't even know there was an application being made. I was completely familiar with the facts of the case, and the sentencing.

KING: Were you shocked at the pardon?

MESHBESHER: I wasn't shocked. I was surprised because I had got a call from Carlos and his dad telling me the good news, and I was very happy for them.

KING: Why did he deserve it in your opinion, Ron?

MESHBESHER: Well, if you look at the facts of this case, he got, if not the longest sentence, one of the longest sentences of about 30 people. His involvement in this case was relatively minor. According to the evidence and the judge's findings, he got involved in the case for about seven or eight months.

Of course, he denied his guilt, and that's one of the problems. When you go to trial in federal court and you get found guilty, your sentence usually is longer. The government tried to make him out as a kingpin, either a manager or a leader or a supervisor or an organizer.

The judge specifically found that wasn't true. And now they're trying to claim he's responsible for 800 pounds of cocaine. That wasn't true either because the judge made a specific finding that he was responsible for at least five kilograms, and no more than 15. So, he was not the big drug dealer that the media has made him out to be.

KING: And Todd, what is your response to Ron's statement that this was overplayed in a sense?

JONES: Well, two points, Larry. First, when it comes to the clemency petition, innocence or guilt is not at issue. It's whether or not the circumstances of the case warrants some clemency, in this case, a commutation, which is rarely granted.

Second, the evidence in the case was pretty clear. There were 30 people indicted in this case. It was a massive narcotics distribution network between Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and we had wiretap evidence, cooperating witnesses, search warrant -- the evidence was overwhelming that Carlos Vignali was a major supplier of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. KING: How do you account, Todd, for so many influential Californians writing and speaking out on his behalf?

JONES: You know, Larry, I really can't answer that question. Here in Minneapolis, this was something that we really weren't paying attention to and had no idea that it was going to happen until January 20th when the final pardon and commutation list did come out.

My understanding is that his family worked the room pretty hard in Los Angeles to get support and obviously, people were sold bill of goods and weren't well versed with the facts.

KING: And his father a big contributor; right?

JONES: You know, all I know is what I've read in the newspaper about his political connections.

KING: One thing to be clear, Todd, there are a lot of commutations every Christmas, aren't there? Aren't sentences commuted every Christmas time by presidents and governors?

JONES: Well, there are, and unusual circumstances, who this individual was. I think that there were about 36 commutations given on the 20th of January. Many of those did involve narcotics offenses, but the surprising thing for us here in Minneapolis, both the prosecutors involved and the law enforcement agents who investigated the case, was in fact that it was someone of Carlos Vignali's involvement in the case that actually got a six-year -- his sentence commuted after six years.

KING: Ron, what do you make of the "Time" magazine report that Carlos Vignali's father told associates that he paid Roger Clinton $30,000 to lobby on his son's behalf. A spokesman for Roger Clinton denied comment to CNN on that "Time" magazine story. What do you make of that?

MESHBESHER: Well, I don't know anything about it. All I know is what you've told me and what I've read. I haven't talked to the Vignalis since that call when they told me they were out. But, he is not a big player that Todd Jones tried to make him out to be. Indeed, the person who was found by the judge to be the leader and organizer, only got an eight-year sentence and he is out today.

KING: All right, now, what do you make, Ron, of the Los Angeles, the famed Cardinal Roger Mahoney who lobbied for him then said he made a serious mistake?

When he was lobbying, what was he thinking then?

MESHBESHER: I have no idea what he was thinking, but apparently, they're good church people and he probably made a recommendation based upon the family.

KING: Todd, there is nothing really that -- I guess you can investigate all you want, but nothing can happen from this; right? You can't change the commutation, can you? JONES: No, we understand the pardon power is absolute. The sentence is commuted and there is nothing that we can do. One of the things that is troubling to us here is like Ron said, there are people who cooperated with the government, who got light touches, so to speak, on their sentences.

But there are people who are still in the custody of Federal Bureau Prisons today who did cooperate with the government, including Gerald Williams (ph), one of the key players here in Minneapolis. He is at the end of his sentence. He cooperated, and there were only four people out of 30 that went to trial on this. This was a rock- solid case, Larry.

KING: As John Kennedy once said, life isn't fair. Thank you both very much. When we come back, William Bennett, the co-director of Empower America, to our knowledge he is speaking out for the first time on this pardon issue. It's good to welcome Bill back and we'll meet him right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUGH RODHAM, ATTORNEY: I don't have anything to add to this. I keep telling you guys that, but I guess that's just not enough for you. But I don't. Everything that was done was done. Everything you know rumors, all that other stuff, is what you have said. That's exactly what this is about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was Hugh Rodham talking over the weekend. By the way, he has been invited. along with both Clintons, the senator and the former president, along with Roger Clinton to be on this program. We have not yet received a yes or a no. We just haven't received a response either way.

We welcome now to LARRY KING LIVE William Bennett, co-director of Empower America. He's got a new book coming in September. We'll, of course, see him then when that comes out. His books are never dull.

And this is his first time speaking out on this, first time on the Vignali case. What do you make of that, Bill?

WILLIAM BENNETT, CO-DIRECTOR, EMPOWER AMERICA: Those guys were very polite, Larry. Mr. Vignali went to jail because he was involved in distributing 800 pounds of cocaine. His lawyer said, no, it wasn't that bad, just a thousand kilos of cocaine.

Do you have any idea of how much damage 1,000 kilos of cocaine can do? Well, 800 pounds of cocaine could effectively provide one rock of crack for every kid in Los Angeles. It's 1,000 kilos less, but still, a substantial amount of cocaine.

There are black co-defendants who are still in jail and will be for a long time. But Carlos Vignali is now out. He is a white man. KING: Because he had influence...

BENNETT: Because he has money; he has influence; and he has the ear of the president. This was the president who lectured us about the discrepancy between crack and powder. Larry, some liberals have been worried about my appearance on this show, as you know, because they were afraid I would say what I'm going to say right now. I told you so. I have been telling you this for as long as you and I have been talking about this matter.

KING: And you are saying what tonight?

BENNETT: Larry, I said in August of 1998 on your show, and in "The Wall Street Journal," I said we are not done with this guy, more shoes will drop, more doors will open. Because this is a corrupt man.

I said several times, you remember, in several conversations that when I went to see a senior Democratic senator and told him that he should go with his colleagues to see President Clinton -- then- President Clinton -- and tell him to resign, he said it wouldn't do any good. I said, well, it may not do any good in terms of him leaving, but it will do your party some good because if you don't go to do that, and if you don't disassociate yourself from Clinton, you will make a pact with the devil. I don't know if you saw Bob Herbert's column in "New York Times" today...

KING: I did. Yes.

BENNETT: ...but he used exactly that language: a pact with the devil. Finally, Larry, I think I said over and over again; I know I have got a lot of hate mail and I'm sure I will get some more tonight:the Clintons are corrupt, and corrupting. They are corrupting themselves, they are corrupting in others; they are a disgrace to this country; they are despicable people.

Bob Herbert said today in the "New York Times," this is a terminally -- terminally unethical and vulgar couple who have betrayed the trust of everybody who ever believed in them. You know, I'm sorry to say I told you so, but it did not take rocket science to figure out what these people were about and who they are. Character is destiny in these kinds of jobs, and it comes across.

KING: Haven't pardons -- "Washington Post" had a story on it today -- haven't pardons, if we want to get into it, always been questioned? The nature of the pardon is to forgive someone who did something wrong.

BENNETT: Yes. That is correct. And there is usually a good, or at least arguable, reason for doing that.

KING: Right.

BENNETT: And there usually is clearance with Justice Department. And there is usually a check with the pardon attorney. There is usually the court of public opinion. You know what Bill Clinton's ratings were when he left his office, pretty high. And now the court of public opinion is having its say, and it is pretty bad -- it is pretty ugly.

You know, we go way back on this issue. On your show, I think 1996, Mario Cuomo and I were talking about the next term of the Clintons and I said it is going to be filled with scandal. All right, that is the last time I'll say "I told you so."

But, one more thing: we had the tapes a long time ago of Gennifer Flowers talking to Bill Clinton. And Gennifer Flowers says to Governor Bill Clinton, "I lied to the grand jury." And Bill Clinton says, good for you. We should have known at that point -- you didn't need to be Phd to figure this one out -- that this was a bad guy, and now I think it is there for the world to see, except for the most obsequious of his followers.

KING: All right, let's break...

BENNETT: Am I clear? Am I clear?

KING: I wish you were a little more forthright.

BENNETT: Yes sir.

KING: Every time we have you on, it's this namby-pamby thing.

BENNETT: I know. Pull it out of me. Get it out of me.

KING: What do you make of Hugh Rodham paid to lobby for Vignali and then returning the money and Mrs. Clinton's insistence she did not know?

BENNETT: Yeah, well, you know, as Chris Hitchins pointed out, why was she rushing money back unless she thought something wrong had been done? What is this mean, she doesn't know? Did you see "Saturday Night Live", I know I shouldn't plug another station...

KING: No, I was the King Baucus this weekend at Mardi Gras. I was otherwise detained in my "Kingly" duties. I issued no pardons, by the way.

BENNETT: Right. You want to boast about King Baucus? Is that a...

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: Anyway, they had an opening bet with Hillary and Bill and Hugh and Roger, and the boys go through the things they have done, and she turns to the boys and says, you know, I'm just ashamed of you guys; you are terrible, you are an embarrassment, you are always acting irresponsibly. And they look down and she looks down and then she bursts out laughing. Because it is obviously a joke, she doesn't know that Hugh Rodham is in the White House -- what's he doing in the White House?

She didn't know, remember, at the time of the Monica Lewinsky business what was going on. As someone said wisely at the time, why doesn't she ask the man with whom she has breakfast every morning, whom she says she knows better than anyone in the world and they discuss everything together.

You can't have it both ways, you can't be probative, intelligent, you know, on the duty on the job Senator Clinton, and the other hand, Miss Wallflower, I do not know anything -- What are these boys doing to me? You can't have it both ways.

KING: In a minute, I will ask Bill Bennett -- we will go over some of the other issues, and, what can you do about it, what can you do about it as they say a done deal? William Bennett is our guest; more after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: 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 new nothing about his taking money for his involvement, I had no knowledge of that whatsoever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was the senator from New York speaking last Thursday. Our guest is William Bennett. Where does it all go? We have had investigations -- criminal investigations, you can't change the pardon, you can't change the commutation, the president is a former president. It's hard to prove a quid pro quo, unless you've got a tape or something. Where does it go?

BENNETT: Well, that is good question, Larry. I think where it goes, is coming to right conclusion -- drawing the right lesson from this. I don't know about the hearings, if obviously if there is a suspicion of criminal activity here, look into it. Mary Jo White should look into it, Congress should look into it.

But the public needs to draw the right conclusion. Let me suggest two areas: one, campaign finance reform, I think, is not the place to look, because you can give money to libraries in Arkansas; you can hire lawyers to lobby the president, no matter what the campaign finance laws are.

You know the old joke about the drunk who is looking for his wallet around Times Square; the cop says, did you lose it here? He said, no, I lost it up in the Bronx. He said, why are looking here? He said, because the light is better? All right, that is campaign finance reform, you know, we don't like to get on that. Money is around. Money is all over the place, but it is not just in campaigns.

The conclusion here has to be it -- seems to me fairly straightforward. We have to put in office people whom we know have a reputation for integrity and decency that is deserved. Now, people say, how are we going to know that? Well, let's look into it. Let's ask those questions, in addition to resume, where they went to school, how many promises are they making. What is the character of our candidates? People are saying, you know, do we have to do away with the pardon power of the president? Do we have to do away with executive privilege? Do we have to do away with privacy or secrecy? You don't have to do away with any of those things. Let's just pay more attention to the kinds of people we put in office. Because, I think we learned this time -- at least I hope we have -- that if you have serious doubts about the kind of person who is going into that office, then, don't pull the lever that way, because that office just exaggerates the temptations. And we see what it's cost us.

(CROSSTALK)

The other thing is -- the other thing is, you know, I am a student of American government. I'm not a cynic. I'm a citizen. I'm a believer. I still want to work with the Democrats, though I think they have harmed their soul, as Bob Herbert said today.

But I'll tell you, the cynicism that this has created. What do you think those people in jail are thinking? We're having a serious debate, Larry, about drug policy. You know, I'm in the middle of that. I'm a hard-liner. You know I think "Traffic" is good, but has some wrong messages.

But it's a serious debate, and I take it seriously. What about these guys who are in jail for crimes, drug crimes, and they see this guy who sold 800 pounds or 400 pounds or a thousand kilograms, was responsible for trafficking that, and he is out...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Does this, Bill, does it make it very tough in the future to get a pardon, even those who should get pardons? Is this now going to be examined, hither and bound?

BENNETT: It will be examined, sure. It will bring greater scrutiny, but I think the larger question is instead of looking more closely at every single pardon that comes down the pike, let's look at the people we are nominating for office, people we are recommending to the presidency.

I hope Al Gore speaks out about this at some point because we're hearing these stories about Gore going in to see Clinton, you know, the story, in the White House. I would like to know, because I'll tell you, you know, I'm not a Gore guy. I'm not a Gore supporter. I think there's a lot wrong with Al Gore. But I'll tell you, he had to carry the albatross that this administration represents, and he wasn't given a clear shot at this because of the Clintons.

KING: We'll be back with some more moments with William Bennett, the co-director of Empower America, speaking out for the first time on all of this, and strongly attacking the former president. This is LARRY KING LIVE.

At the bottom of the hour, we'll meet another gentleman who surprisingly attacked him in an op-ed piece in "The Wall Street Journal." Hamilton Jordan, the former chief of staff in the Jimmy Carter administration, wrote a scathing piece in "The Journal" along with Ed Rollins, then a panel. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Senator, do you think your husband made a mistake in pardoning Marc Rich?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: You know, I know that other senators have commented on this, and I think you might understand why I'm not going to have any comment on any of the pardons, on the merits or demerits that might surround any of these pardons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: By the way, New York voters, Bill, say Hillary is not telling the truth. Fifty-five percent do not believe her in this regard.

BENNETT: Well...

KING: Just to add to what you said earlier about...

BENNETT: Well, we'll see. I'm not going to win a popularity contest in New York for this, but this kind of evidence was pretty clear earlier. I remember this was the woman who said all of this about her husband was a vast right-wing conspiracy, and that when the facts came out it would be clear.

It was pretty clear that although Mrs. Clinton was lied to, she was not presenting, shall we say, her view of things as time went on with candor. So, I mean, I think people are on notice about the Clintons. New Yorkers who voted for her may well forgive her. Too bad for New Yorkers.

KING: On the other side, and we might add that he is a friend of ours and a friend of yours, Michael Milken, and you're involved with him in a major education concept of which we'd like to discuss some night.

BENNETT: Yes.

KING: Do you think he should have gotten a pardon?

BENNETT: Well, compared to the people who did, I don't think there's any question. But you know, that's not a judgment I'd make, that's a judgment for the president to make. That would be a judgment for people in the Justice Department.

But I think Mike Milken -- you're right. We have a relationship. I'm working with his brother, Lowell very closely, and Mike is also interested in our project which is to put a first-class school on the Internet so that every child in America will have a chance at a great education.

There is no question of the enormous good that Michael Milken has done. People can argue, and will argue, about the merits of the case against him. But to compare that case with the case of Vignali or Braswell or Dorothy Rivers is ridiculous. I mean, one case after another in the Clinton record suggests what Clinton was about. There are cases in which pardons can be given that have merits. Many of these have no merit whatsoever.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: The one thing we haven't asked about, and it all started -- we've only got about a minute and a half, is Marc Rich. Is that still, in your opinion, the most flagrant of these?

BENNETT: I guess the Vignali thing sticks in my craw because of the current debate about drugs, and because it shows that complete and total and utter hypocrisy of the Clintons on this. But the Rich thing is horrible, and I think the lawyers have argued this very successfully.

When a guy's on the list for six most wanted, you know, spits at the United States, renounces his citizenship, and there's obviously more to tell here. We have a whole bunch of people taking the Fifth Amendment. This is the classic Clinton style.

KING: Another one today.

BENNETT: I mean, just as long -- you know, it's still the greatest country in the world. It's still, you know, the place that everybody wants to come but we have to figure out what happened here, and we have to realize even though the economy was good and things were going great, we still do not get a leave to -- or at least an opportunity to take leave of our senses, and not judge people in terms of what they do, in terms of their conduct, in terms of whether we can trust their word. Integrity and honesty is what it's about.

KING: Unless we give a false impression, you are not happy you had to be vindicated, are you?

BENNETT: No, no. It would have been nice be wrong about this, and say that this was a -- this was a great president instead of a towering disgrace.

KING: Bill Bennett, thanks. We'll be seeing you again soon.

BENNETT: You bet. Thanks, Larry.

KING: Bill Bennett from Naples, Florida, the co-director of Empower America, speaking out for the first time tonight on the pardons.

Hamilton Jordan, former chief of staff in the Carter administration and Ed Rollins, the famed Republican strategist, are next. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Have you asked your husband whether -- what kind of contact they had?

CLINTON: You know I never talk about conversations with my husband, Vince.

QUESTION: But given that this is a question that's to be investigated...

CLINTON: You will have...

QUESTION: ... have you sat down, at least, even if you don't want to say what you talked about, have you sat down with your husband and said what went on?

CLINTON: You will have to ask the president and his staff any specifics questions about any pardons that were or were not granted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: And before we meet our panel, let's spend some moments with Hamilton Jordan, the former White House chief of staff in the Carter administration, wrote a scathing op-ed piece on pardons in "The Wall Street Journal" last week, highly critical of the former president. And in West Palm Beach, Florida, Ed Rollins, the famed Republican strategist.

Ed, I'll start with you. Were you surprised at how strong Hamilton Jordan's comment were?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I have always know Hamilton to be a man of integrity. I've been on the opposite side of Hamilton, and we've actually worked together. I believe anybody who worked in the White House as he did and I did for five years for President Reagan I think are so disgusted by the behavior of this president who has diminished the presidency by his behavior not just in this particular instance, but before.

And I think the reality is that in this White House, everything was for sale. I ran a campaign. Hamilton ran a campaign. I think we tried to protect the man and the country. I think everything was for sale from start to finish, and that's why his brother, his brother-in- law everybody else thought they could bring their friends in and get pardons in the end and I think it's a disgrace.

KING: Hamilton, were you shocked at the Marc Rich story and others?

HAMILTON JORDAN, FORMER CARTER CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, it was outrageous, Larry. There have been controversial pardons before. For example, President Ford pardoned ex-President Nixon to put Watergate behind us. That may have cost Ford the election against us. President Carter pardoned a lot of Vietnam draft resisters, that cost him a lot of support with veterans.

But there were reasons for those pardons. The theme of the Clinton pardons were, as Ed was suggesting, it was be access and it was campaign donations and that is particularly true in the case of Marc Rich. You can line up all the reasons that you would not pardon Marc Rich: Wanted list from the FBI, fugitive, not contrite. Indeed, he renounced his U.S. citizenship.

What are the reasons for his pardon? Well, he had a lot of friends in high places that could talk to the president.

KING: Were you surprised, Hamilton, at President Carter's harsh criticism of it, since normally, former presidents don't do that?

JORDAN: Well, I think President Carter was -- I did not talk to him before he did that. I know that he did that with a great deal of reluctance to criticize another former president, but I think he just looked at facts and found it outrageous and felt that particularly Democrats needed to be heard and to speak out on this.

You know, it's normal for a former president to want to exert some influence over their party, and most former presidents have wanted to do that. But the ungraceful and noisy way that Bill Clinton left office and the fact that he seemed to want to control the future agenda of the party and the apparatus of party were all very unseemly and like nothing I think any of us who have been in politics in this country have seen before.

KING: Ed Rollins, we asked Bill Bennett this. He said basically, it's a learning process. Nothing much can happen with it. Do you agree? I mean, where does it go, all these investigations?

ROLLINS: I mean, the tragedy of this presidency is probably there was never a more skilled politician to ever hold that office and instead of using it for good, I think he lowered the bar too such an extent that he certainly didn't set any example for young people or for the country to make them feel better about the presidency and the political process. That's his legacy, and I think to a certain extent whatever he does from here on out, he's not going to be able to escape that legacy.

KING: Do you think this is going to stay with him? This pardon story will -- has legs?

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: Sure, I think it's the last impression people are going to have of him. You know, I think he had an opportunity there in the closing days to go out and be almost a shadow presidency, and I think this last act just reminded people one more time this is a man without integrity, without any convictions. He doesn't care about drug dealers, doesn't care about, you know, people who have committed criminal acts that are in any way similar to him as long as they have rich friends who are going to plead their cases.

KING: Hamilton, should Al Gore, do you think, speak up?

JORDAN: Well, that's up to...

KING: I mean, do you think so?

JORDAN: Well, I think all Democrats should. I don't think that they should allow this kind of guilt association through silence to take place. This man, former President Clinton, is former president. He is not the future of Democratic Party and I think it behooves Democrats to assert themselves and say we are going to control our message, our party, our agenda for the future. But I agree with Ed, in the short term, I think that these pardons have hurt Clinton irreparable and I think they have hurt the Democratic Party.

KING: Ed, should Democrats be speaking out before everything is known or should they wait until investigation is over?

ROLLINS: No, I think the vast majority of Democrats feel this is terrible, terrible thing and a terrible burden on them. You know, they're in a very divided Congress. They have a new president who obviously is off to a good start.

They've been forced to stumble and I think the reality is that -- I hope the House and the Senate don't spend too much time with this thing. They try to get facts and then move on to the nation's business and the Democrats are going to be a very important part of that, and the quicker they get rid of Bill Clinton as this backdrop to who they are, the better they'll be.

KING: Thank you very much. We'll be calling on you both frequently, Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins. Always great to see them both. Hamilton in Atlanta, Ed in West Palm Beach.

When we come back, our panel will assemble. By the way, we will be pre-empted tomorrow night as President Bush makes his first major speech to Congress dealing with his budget. We'll be back on Wednesday. We'll be right back with Julian Epstein, Mark Geragos, Congressman Asa Hutchinson and Barbara Olson. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RODHAM: It's none of your business. I'm not talking about this. I'm not talking about my family. You want to talk about golf, you want to talk about football, talk about the weather, I'd be happy to. I'm not a hard guy to get along with. Some of the great little tricks that have been played on me by you people, not you guys specifically. I mean calling up and telling me my mother had a heart attack and leaving a phone number, that was a real peach. That was really fun.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: An angry Hugh Rodham Clinton. Hugh Rodham, rather. We welcome to LARRY KING LIVE Julian Epstein, chief minority counsel of the House Judiciary Committee. He's in Washington. Here in Los Angeles, Mark Geragos, the former attorney for Susan McDougal, who was pardoned, by the way, by President Clinton, with almost no attacks on that one. In New York, Congressman Asa Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas. And in Washington, Barbara Olson, former federal prosecutor, author of "Hell To Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Julian, I'll start with you. One of the names that has come up now is Harry Thomason. I spoke with Harry today. He has not gone on publicly, but he did say it was OK for me to say that what Harry Thomason was involved with the two Arkansas men convicted of tax evasion was: He received calls from lots of influential people in Arkansas, including members of the clergy, he passed that along, they asked him for a good lawyer, he called Harold Ickes, Ickes recommended someone else, that someone else took over, and he made one mention of it to president to keep it in mind and look at it. That's all he did. Is that part much ado?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, CHIEF MINORITY COUNSEL, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think there is. We will probably all stipulate on the panel tonight, Larry, that we disagree with the pardons. I don't ascribe it to the venality that others might, but there is a pattern of overstating the cases.

If you remember back to the White House vandalism story, that the Clintons vandalized the White House on the way out, or that they stole property from Air Force One -- that story was kicked around for about three weeks. So then, later came out that the accusers on those two stories had to recant the accusations. We found out, after three weeks of the harshest criticism made towards the Clintons, that the accusations weren't, in fact, accurate.

I think you're seeing a lot of that happening right now. Again, we disagree with the pardons. You see many of the Clinton detractors saying that there was bribery when there's absolutely not the slightest shred of evidence involving bribery.

You're seeing that -- the accusers saying that the Clintons knew that Hugh Rodham -- I think his involvement was really disgusting, I think it was vulgar. I agree with that, but you see the accusations the Clintons must have known. There's no evidence of that so I do think you see a pattern of overstatement going on and I'm sure three weeks from now we can come back on the case and we'll see that many of these accusations didn't pan out, the way so many against the Clintons haven't panned out over the years.

KING: Barbara, can there be too much of a danger here of piling on?

BARBARA OLSON, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I mean, we've had the list given by Julian. But by the way, when you talked with Harry -- he did talk to Harold Ickes, and it just so happens that Harold Ickes' partner, Janis Inright, gave all the pardon applications to the White House. That's a little bit of a fact that's sort of gotten lost, which I think's fairly important.

Piling on? You know, we're not piling anything on that Bill Clinton hasn't piled on. And when Julian says there's no evidence of bribery -- well, there a certain amount of common sense when Hillary says that her brother is living at the White House and she doesn't know that he's walking around with $400,000 worth of pardons.

It sort of insults our intelligence. Of course she knew about it. That's just natural. It's her brother and he's living there.

Was it wrong?

(CROSSTALK)

KING: All right, now, hold it. Mark -- OK, Mark is shaking his head no. You're saying that's not evidence.

MARK GERAGOS, ATTORNEY FOR SUSAN MCDOUGAL: Of course it's not evidence. She knows that.

She didn't have any idea whatsoever, Hillary didn't, that there was $400,000 that was taken by her brother. Her brother is a lawyer, it was put into the trust account. When she found out, she told him immediately and asked him immediately: Put that money back. The idea that she should have known because it was his brother -- Barbara, how many times have one of your relatives done something that you wish you could take back and you had no idea? Or myself or anybody else?

OLSON: If he's under my roof, I know.

GERAGOS: Or anybody else? He wasn't under the roof. He was there, he visited. She doesn't have any right to go check his attorney-client trust account.

(CROSSTALK)

OLSON: He was living there for the last week.

GERAGOS: She doesn't have any right to go in there and invade attorney-client privilege.

Now, I will tell you that I agree that Hugh Rodham probably should have exercised a little bit more discretion in terms of taking this, given the facts of the situation. But to now say that somehow what Hugh Rodham did, in representing a client, was criminal, or to say that Hillary should have known or did known is an awful big leap and I think is defamatory in its face.

KING: Congressman Hutchinson, is it -- is it -- does it look like you're never going to get proof here of anything? By proof, I mean a quid pro quo -- you did this for this and here's the proof.

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, it would be very possible that proof is not there. It's possible that that did not happen. Obviously, we do not know those facts, but it's important that the criminal investigation go forward. There's certainly sufficient to do that. I'm delighted that Mary Jo White is leading that investigation.

Secondly, it's important that Congress handle this in a correct fashion. It's important to a certain extent that the public -- light be shed on this so they know what's happened.

But, at some point, we all are interested in pursuing President Bush's agenda, and this is certainly a distraction to it. All of us would like to see the president -- former President Clinton off center-stage. Anybody who loves our justice system, though, understands that we have a responsibility to check this out.

This is extraordinary offensive and harmful to our system. We don't -- we should not cast judgments in advance, but we have to pursue it to just see where they lead.

KING: But in that sense, aren't judgments being passed in advance, Congressman?

HUTCHINSON: Are there judge -- Well, certainly. There's always somebody who's casting judgments, making determinations, and you can't do that. That's inappropriate.

But the same time, there's people in America who see a pattern of conduct by this president, and what is comparable to what we went through, the judiciary committee, for -- Julian was a part of that, is that you had an abuse of -- a disregard of the system of justice.

And I think, even if you take the president's view here, there's a disregard and a lack of respect for the justice system because he did not check with the justice department on all of these pardons and I think that that is problematic.

KING: Let me get a break and we'll have more of the panel as well. This is LARRY KING LIVE. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUGH RODHAM, ATTORNEY: I can't talk about this. I won't talk about it. And it doesn't matter how long you guys sit out here. It's not going to make a difference. And you know that that's true, and I know it's true, and the whole world knows it's true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACTOR (AS BILL CLINTON): These past few weeks have been a difficult time for me and my family, as a number of questions have surfaced concerning my conduct in the final days of my presidency.

For most of you, the main question is: why did I pardon fugitive billionaire Marc Rich? Or perhaps some of you may be asking: Why did I pardon my own brother...

(LAUGHTER)

ACTOR (AS BILL CLINTON): Why did I pardon my own brother, Roger?

ACTOR (AS ROGER CLINTON): Howdy, folks.

(LAUGHTER)

ACTOR (AS BILL CLINTON): Hey, hey, hey, use a coaster!

(LAUGHTER)

ACTOR (AS BILL CLINTON): That table is from the White House.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, is that just funny, Mark Geragos, or is it incriminating?

(LAUGHTER)

GERAGOS: Well, it's funny. If you don't have sense of humor, obviously, what are you going to do? Obviously people are going to poke fun.

But this idea, when you sit here and listen to Bennett just sit and scold -- and the venom, and the venality, and the accusations -- it's just over the top. It's piling on, as you characterize it.

KING: Now, Barbara, you were a prosecutor. Isn't it -- and Asa even said it, too -- that you can't make it -- I mean, you can, but you should be presuming innocence here.

OLSON: Well, you presume innocence but, you know -- and I'm not going to get legal on you but very quickly, I mean, everybody talks about quid pro quo direct, i.e. do we have direct evidence that Bill Clinton said: All right, I'll give the pardon, you take the $400,000. That's direct.

There is circumstantial evidence, which there's a great deal of it out there. And frankly, the bribery statute says that if a public official takes anything of value in order to be influenced for an act, then that's entering into the illegality, so that's a prosecutor's...

KING: Could we then arrest almost everybody in Senate?

OLSON: Oh. I'm not that -- I don't believe that's true.

KING: I'll give you a contribution. Vote this way. You don't think that ever happens?

OLSON: Oh, if someone votes that way because you gave them a contribution -- absolutely, they should be investigated. That doesn't happen in Washington. I don't think that's just to try to say that it happens everywhere. It doesn't happen everywhere...

KING: Doesn't. OK.

OLSON: And Clinton came very close to the line and Mary Jo White will see if he stepped over it.

EPSTEIN: But, Larry, you know, I could take any major piece of legislation that goes through the House or through the Senate, and I can show you a trail of political contributions before and afterwards. And those things never get investigated, and I think there's as much evidence of quid pro quo in those cases as there is there. I think the second...

OLSON: Well, maybe minority counsel needs to have an investigation.

EPSTEIN: I think the second problem with the lack of evenhandedness is the two cases that I pointed about Air Force One and the White House vandalism story that never proved to be true -- the Republicans never stand up after the fact and say: We got story wrong, we apologize.

The third thing is, in today's "Washington Post," they reported that former President Bush in 1992 and 1993 pardoned a Pakastani drug smuggler who brought in $1.5 million worth of heroin. Now, I don't now the particular details of that story...

OLSON: Obviously.

EPSTEIN: ... but you didn't hear Bill Bennett going in and engaging in the sanctimonious rhetoric there, and in that case, according to the "Post" story, again, the prosecutors involved in that case weren't consulted either. So, I do think, and many on our side, while we do disagree with the pardons, do think that there is a consistent pattern of overstating the case and an unwillingness to apply the same standards...

KING: Congressman, based on what Julian doesn't say, doesn't that affect investigations?

Impact the investigation?

KING: Yeah, because there is so much pre-determination? I mean, there would be little doubt that -- put it this way, Barbara Olson probably thinks that Bill Clinton knew money went in return for his pardon. I think Barbara thinks that.

OLSON: Yes.

KING: She does think that.

OLSON: Yes, I do.

HUTCHINSON: The decisions that are being made, the predictions that are being made, affects public opinion. That is why it shouldn't be tried in the court of public opinion. The public needs to know, but I would suggest that right now, our Congressional investigation is being stymied because a number of people are taking the 5th Amendment.

(CROSSTALK)

GERAGOS: Congressman, why wouldn't somebody take the Fifth Amendment when you have nothing but rapid, right-wing people like Dan Burton -- who, the other day, I saw in a news interview, say we will get to the bottom of why this president was pardoning felons. If he can't figure out why they're pardoning felons, why would anybody sit in front of his committee and cooperate with him?

HUTCHINSON: Mark, I wasn't disputing the fact that they claimed the Fifth Amendment and certainly, they have a right to do that if they believe what they would say would incriminate them.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: One at a time.

HUTCHINSON: The point I was making is, that because there is not going to be any public statements as to what happened in these circumstances, we ought to have a quiet investigation, interview the witnesses, determine the facts, and Mary Jo White will determine where to go, and the public needs to know about it. I think...

(CROSSTALK)

HUTCHINSON: Right now, we need to concentrate on getting to the truth.

OLSON: One of the reasons, Larry, when you asked me if I thought money exchanged hands -- you know, we have all been around eight years of the Clinton administration; we saw the White House coffees, we saw the Lincoln bedroom sold; we've seen so much of the White House gone for money, so why wouldn't one believe that Bill Clinton knew these pardons were bringing in money to his library and to other candidates?

He was willing to do so much to bring in money, and I think he crossed the line before, and I think we are point now where the American people have to decide, is this just politics as usual in Washington; or is it a line that we are not going to let public officials cross?

KING: I have to get a break, hold it, we will come right back. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We are back. Let's get in a call to Las Vegas -- hello.

CALLER: I just want to know, if the president is found guilty, could he be punished, and how so if he is punished?

KING: Julian.

EPSTEIN: Well, if he's found guilty of bribery, which I'm sure he won't be found guilty of, he could go to jail. And there's no restriction on that. As Asa was saying before the break, this should be a quiet investigation. That's not what's happening. I did a Lexis search before the program, and the number of times you see bribery accusations and quid pro accusations are in the hundreds, if not thousands. So, I think that I appreciate Mr. Hutchinson's sentiment, but that is not in fact what is going on.

KING: Barbara, is he right? OLSON: Well, I mean, if you hear bribery allegations, I have to say I don't think it's anyone's fault but Bill Clinton's. I don't think there's a vast conspiracy causing these. I think Bill Clinton has walked up to the line and with Terry McAuliffe, he doesn't think he crossed did, but I think he's maybe outsmarted himself.

EPSTEIN: If you were to apply that standard every day in Washington, Larry, there would be half of Washington -- all of Washington would be under criminal investigation right now.

KING: Mark, he makes his bed, he has to lie in it, as they say.

GERAGOS: To some degree, obviously, he picked these. I think he would take some of these pardons back if he could, but the idea now that Republicans are talking about Democrats raising money and saying, bad boy, bad boy, after they just basically bought and paid for a presidential election, I find it to be a little bit hypocritical.

EPSTEIN: That's an outstanding point, Larry. President Bush actually has the legal ability to rescind these pardons if they haven't been delivered. Ulysses Grant rescinded pardons that were given out by President Johnson in the latter -- 1870...

KING: Do you think he might rescind any?

HUTCHINSON: Actually, we will have a hearing on the Constitutional use of pardons and what the options are. But let me...

KING: I only have 20 seconds.

HUTCHINSON: People are casting judgments, but it's on the improper use of it, and not on the criminal conduct -- that's what we need to withhold judgment on.

KING: Thank you all very much; we'll have you all on again soon. Check out my web site: cnn.com/larryking. Stay tuned for "CNN TONIGHT"-- we'll be preempted tomorrow night because of President Bush's speech. We'll be back Wednesday. Thanks for joining us and good night.

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