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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton today vehemently denied any connection between political contributions and her husband's recent pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

"It's categorically untrue," the former first lady told a morning news conference downtown, as she opened her new Buffalo office. "There's absolutely not one bit of evidence for it."

At first, Clinton refused to comment on the growing controversy over the pardons issued by former President Bill Clinton before he left office. But after being peppered with questions during the 15-minute news conference, she finally relented.

"I wasn't involved in any of it," she said of the controversial pardons. "Those were decisions made by the president. But it's categorically untrue (that that there was any connection to political contributions)."

Although most of the attention has focused on her husband, sparking a criminal investigation into his actions, Clinton has become involved because Rich's ex-wife, Denise, donated at least $109,000 to her U.S. Senate campaign.

The Rich pardon followed the former first lady around the Buffalo Niagara region like a dark shadow, on a day when she sat down to a lively breakfast discussion with African-American leaders, opened her new Buffalo office and then headed for a luncheon meeting with the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce.

She started the day by thanking African-American leaders for their overwhelming support in her recent election, then getting an earful from them about their needs and concerns.

In a free-wheeling breakfast discussion that reportedly had Clinton listening almost as much as talking, roughly 60 local black leaders inside St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street filled Clinton's ears about their most-pressing issues.

There were the usual staples -- health care, education and business creation -- but the African-American leaders also talked about more pointed topics and local concerns, including creation of an East Side supermarket and beefing up youth programs to help curb youth violence.

The session was closed to the public and reporters, but people leaving the breakfast meeting all echoed the same point: The new senator was there to listen to their needs.

Crystal D. Peoples, majority leader of the Erie County Legislature, summed up the senator's basic message: "I'm here to work for you. What is it that you need?"

"I took confirmation that we elected the right person to the U.S. Senate," Peoples said.

"She's very sincere, and she wants to help."

Clinton left Peoples with another message: "It's not always about legislation. It's also about connecting you to people who have access to the resources."

The new senator left the double message that she's willing to work with the African-American community and that she has a deep concern for Western New York, said State Sen. Byron W. Brown.

"It reinforced the sense that I had before, of someone who's very bright, very well-organized, very focused on results and very inclusive," Brown said outside the church.

Clinton then opened her new office in the historic Guaranty Building on Church Street, which will be headed by former Deputy County Executive James P. Keane.

"I have just developed a great affection for Buffalo and Western New York," Clinton told reporters and dignitaries. "I intend to work as hard as I possibly can to fulfill the campaign promises I made."

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