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President Clinton released a convicted Los Angeles cocaine dealer from federal prison after influential congressmen and city leaders personally lobbied the White House and the Justice Department to secure his commutation, the Los Angeles Times reported today.

The concerted effort to free Carlos Vignali included a series of personal contacts between California Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Democrat, and the White House and letters from former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

The letters, some written as early as 1996 and others sent last year, suggested that Vignali was wrongly convicted and that his case deserved a careful review by the White House.

Their view conflicted sharply with the position of federal law enforcement authorities, who insisted that Vignali deserved his 15-year prison sentence for his central role in a narcotics operation that stretched from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, delivering hundreds of kilos of cocaine.

Clinton commuted Vignali's sentence, and he was freed from prison on Jan. 20 after serving only six years.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that law enforcement authorities were indignant that the convicted cocaine dealer had been freed and suggested that he never would have been released without political intervention.

Vignali's request for clemency went first to the Justice Department and from there went to the White House with a recommendation that has not been determined. Former President Bill Clinton has not fully explained why he pardoned 140 individuals and commuted the sentences of 36 others on his last day in office. Vignali's father, Horacio Vignali, is an affluent Los Angeles businessman with deep ties in the Latino community and became a major political contributor to top state and federal officeholders after his son was convicted and imprisoned in 1994.

Both Becerra and Villaraigosa are candidates for mayor of Los Angeles.

In related developments:

Clinton could face a fresh impeachment inquiry as a result of his last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, a senior Republican said Sunday.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and a former Philadelphia district attorney, did not specify what specific charges Clinton could face. But he said that based on his legal research, he believed that a former president "technically could still be impeached."

Clinton spokeswoman Julia Payne replied, "Give me a break."

Legal experts were divided on whether the Constitution allows Congress to pursue an impeachment case -- either over a president's use of his pardon power or against a president who has left office.

Specter suggested the former president could be stripped of "the emoluments of office, such as the substantial sums being spent on the library, such as the bodyguards, such as his pension."

Clinton was impeached by the House in December 1998 on two articles -- perjury and obstruction of justice -- in connection with testimony he gave regarding his relationship with a former White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky. In February 1999, the Senate voted to acquit Clinton; Specter opposed removing the president from office.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan is considering opening a criminal investigation into the contributions and gifts surrounding the Clinton administration's pardon of Rich, Newsweek reported in its Feb. 19 issue.

The federal prosecutor, Mary Jo White, is livid at not being consulted about the pardon of Rich, who was indicted in Manhattan in 1983 but was never prosecuted, Newsweek reported, citing unnamed sources close to White.

White is likely to pursue the bank records of Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, to determine if she illegally funneled money from him in Switzerland to Clinton, the magazine said. Marc Rich renounced his U.S. citizenship and is ineligible to make political contributions.

Denise Rich has given more than $1.3 million to the Clintons and other Democrats since 1993, including $450,000 to the library. She has refused to answer questions from congressional investigators, citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

A spokesman for White declined to comment on the pardon.

Widening a congressional investigation into Clinton's pardon of Rich, a House committee chairman said Sunday he will grant immunity to Rich's ex-wife, issue subpoenas for her bank records and seek to obtain financial records from the Clinton presidential library fund.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, also called on federal law enforcement officials to "pursue" any evidence of criminal violations by Rich, his ex-wife, or the former president himself.

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