The Pardons & the Press
Regardless, careful readers couldn't help notice that the Journal was trying mightily to hold the soggy story together. For instance, when did the central phone call (i.e., the entire premise of the story) from Clinton to Moonves take place? Readers were simply told the incident happened "several months" before Clinton left office. But does anyone honestly believe the story's reporters and editors didn't know the exact date of the phone call in question? Or were they simply trying to fudge it for the sake of maintaining a story line they could pass off as current? Well, the next day those reading the New York Times found out the date of the call: last summer. Additionally, the paper reported, "The deal with the Thomasons was already about 95 percent complete before the call from Mr. Clinton." (Moonves later insisted Clinton's call played no role in the dispute.) And what about that seven-figure fee CBS paid out after Clinton butted in? In its follow-up story, the Journal made an adjustment, reporting that the amount was suddenly fuzzy--"in the neighborhood of $1 million." Actually, according to the Washington Post, the fee was closer to $250,000. In other words, readers were right to be skeptical of the original Journal story; there was no there there.
On March 1, the New York Times gave prominent page-one play to its own pardon entree: Clinton's other brother-in-law, Tony Rodham, had lobbied successfully for a pardon on behalf of husband-and-wife business partners who had been convicted of bank fraud nineteen years before and placed on probation. But now the press was suspicious because prosecutors had objected to the pardon and a Clinton family member had become involved. (Rodham received no payment for his efforts.) Forget that the pardon itself was issued nearly a year ago and that at the time nobody cared. The story's real red flag came when the Times leaned heavily on Clinton's having granted the pardon even though "the White House was told that the case was among the most serious bank fraud cases ever prosecuted in Alabama." That begged the question: If so, why did the couple receive probation and why were they never fined a single dollar? More important, why weren't Times reporters more skeptical of such an exaggerated claim?
The New York Daily News trumpeted its own scoop: A local Clinton Library fundraiser had helped secure a pardon. Or as the News put it, "Another New Bill of Sale; Fund-Raiser Pushed Prez to Pardon Perjurer." Here, the person pardoned was former New York City limo king William Fugazy, who pleaded guilty to one count of perjury in connection with his personal bankruptcy case. He was sentenced to two years' probation in 1997. The Clinton donor was New York supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, who lobbied for Fugazy's pardon, which Clinton granted without Justice Department approval. It turns out that Justice objected only because applicants are supposed to wait five years before seeking a pardon. So what did Catsimatidis actually do on behalf of Fugazy? Did the money man buttonhole the former President and threaten to cut off future funds? Did he promise more donations if Fugazy got off easy? No. According to the Daily News, Catsimatidis wrote a letter to Clinton's Chief of Staff John Podesta. Period. And Catsimatidis was not alone. Representative Charles Rangel, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and the late John Cardinal O'Connor all wrote letters on behalf of Fugazy and his pardon application.
Time pretended it had hit the pardon jackpot in February with, "Bill, How Low Can You Go?; Apparently, it may be a bottomless pit. Time's Elaine Shannon and Viveca Novak investigated the pardon of Harvey Weinig and mined some gems." Set aside the odd, self-congratulatory headline and notice the phrase "the pardon of Harvey Weinig." In fact, Weinig was never pardoned by Clinton; his sentence was commuted. (Pardons wipe the slate clean; commutations cut sentences short but often leave stipulations, like parole guidelines, intact.) It's a small distinction, but when Time can't even get the most simple facts right in its headline, there's trouble brewing. The basic facts are that prosecutors objected to Weinig's clemency application (do they ever approve?), so his lawyer took the case directly to senior aides at the White House, where a Weinig in-law once worked as an aide, and won a grant of clemency. Clinton cut Weinig's drug-related sentence in half to time served, or six years. That's the story. That's the "bottomless pit." Those are the "gems" that Time investigators "mined." (Mined? Nobody involved in the story ever denied a single thing.)
To be fair, Time wasn't the only publication whose crack staff had trouble distinguishing between sweeping presidential pardons and more limited commutations. On February 24, the Washington Post ran a page-one piece, "4 Pardons Probed for Ties to N.Y. Senate Bid," about four Hasidic men from New Square, New York, who were convicted of embezzling millions of dollars. It turns out that New Square leaders lobbied for full pardons but did not get them. Instead, Clinton commuted the four men's sentences; they will remain in jail for another year and must still pay millions in restitution.
And then there is convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali, who was sentenced to fifteen years. Like the Hasidim, he was routinely referred to in the press as a pardon recipient, even though he received a commutation and must still undergo supervised drug-testing. But far more interesting is the notion that Vignali was convicted of distributing 800 pounds of cocaine. That nugget, which was repeated by virtually every major news operation in the country, lent a sinister air to Clinton's action, particularly when it was revealed that Clinton's brother-in-law Hugh Rodham won a six-figure success fee after Vignali's clemency appeal went through.
For anyone interested in the facts, Vignali was one part of a thirty-person, LA-to-Minneapolis drug ring; prosecutors claimed the ring over many years had distributed nearly half a ton of cocaine. The trial judge, though, ruled that Vignali was not "an organizer, leader or manager" and made a specific finding that Vignali was responsible for at least five kilograms and no more than fifteen (between eleven and thirty pounds), worth roughly $20,000. He was sentenced to fifteen years. (Does any journalist with even a passing knowledge of drug sentencing think someone who pleads not guilty to distributing 800 pounds of cocaine and is found guilty at trial would be sentenced to just fifteen years in prison?)