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A NEVER-ENDING SCANDAL

Potential political fallout from former President Bill Clinton's controversial last-minute pardons landed a lot closer to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton this week, with news that her campaign treasurer helped secure two presidential passes while her brother pushed for another while also seeking to win a sentence commutation.

The shadow over the start of Sen. Clinton's own political career has just deepened. To the extent she has been ethically compromised, through at least the appearance of impropriety, her ability to help this state as one of its top advocates in federal government has just been eroded.

The senator denied knowledge of the $400,000 paid to lawyer Hugh Rodham by those who had sought his help in getting a pardon for Almon Glenn Braswell, convicted of fraud and perjury, and a prison commutation for cocaine trafficker Carlos Vignali. Rodham, a lawyer, has returned the money.

Meanwhile, the role played by New York lawyer William Cunningham III - who earned $4,000 for preparing last-minute applications for two Arkansas felons - is astonishing. Cunningham was Mrs. Clinton's treasurer during her Senate campaign. And although he vowed he had contacted neither the president nor the senator about the pardons, the total lack of common sense in handling those requests is stupefying.

It is beyond belief that the appearance of a conflict of interest did not occur to him.

Either way, she suffers.

Added to her meeting with politically influential New York Hasidic Jews seeking yet another of the pardons, and to complaints about a lucrative book deal, these latest revelations just darken the cloud under which she has started her term. And that should trouble all New Yorkers who had counted on her clout in Washington to give her a running start in her new job.

As for that other new New Yorker, a former president who left the White House without abandoning the front page, indignation over the pardons is fast being overtaken by exasperation. Controversy follows Bill Clinton with the persistence of an adoring but clumsy puppy, occasionally getting completely entangled underfoot and pitching him head first into another mess.

The pardon fees add a new twist to the ethical concerns over the presidential pardons, which have revolved so far around the influence wielded by major financial campaign contributors. Those links will be explored, properly, by a House committee and, in the case of pardoned financier Marc Rich, by the U.S. attorney's office in New York.

It's not the number of pardons issued by the former president that is troubling. Clinton pardoned 140 people and commuted the sentences of 36 more on his last day in office, bringing his eight-year total to 456. Jimmy Carter granted 566 pardons and commutations. Ronald Reagan granted 406. Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted 3,687.

Nor are all the pardons troublesome. Many involved persons who had applied through normal Justice Department channels for pardons for relatively minor offenses for which they'd already completed sentences. Included, for example, are a retired mechanic who sought to have a 1987 tax-evasion charge wiped out so he could buy a gun to go hunting, and a bank secretary convicted of making a false bank record entry although her bosses were acquitted.

Pardons are constitutional, and serve a legitimate purpose as a safety valve in cases where the justice system fails to serve justice. But the former president, in several cases including Braswell's, didn't seek the traditional Justice Department reviews before granting clemency. That was dangerous, and he and his wife are now paying the price.

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