Two of President-elect Joe Biden’s top Cabinet picks played key roles in a clemency scandal that shook Los Angeles and Minnesota two decades ago, when the early release of a cocaine trafficker raised complaints of political favoritism and drew sharp condemnations from prosecutors, the Washington Post reports. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whom Biden intends to nominate as health and human services secretary, and Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick for homeland security secretary, were among prominent Los Angeles figures who reached out to the White House about the sentence of Carlos Vignali Jr., whose father was a wealthy entrepreneur and major Democratic donor in California. Bill Clinton commuted Vignali’s sentence on his last day in office in 2001 — one of 176 last-minute acts of clemency he granted that were the subject of investigations for years.
The episode drew criticism that the process favored the politically and financially connected, a current issue after President Donald Trump’s pardon of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his contemplation of similar acts for other friends and allies. The Vignali commutation drew intense scrutiny because a group of well-connected California Democrats who were friendly with Vignali’s father, Horacio — including Becerra, then a congressman, and Mayorkas, then U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles — communicated with White House officials about the matter before Clinton acted. Vignali’s father paid $200,000 to Hugh Rodham, the brother of then-first lady Hillary Clinton, to help secure Vignali’s release. A 2002 investigation by the GOP-led House Committee on Government Reform said the commutation was extended over objections from the Justice Department’s pardon office and concluded that it “sent a message that there is a double standard of justice between the rich and the poor.”