In November, former President Clinton told Rolling Stone magazine that many drug sentences are too long and that U.S. policy needs to be reexamined. His words seemed to be an official signal, long awaited by many, that the nation's drug laws desperately need an overhaul.
Drug reform groups made a frantic stampede to submit to the president the names of hundreds of petty drug dealers serving long stretches in federal prisons under crushing mandatory-minimum drug sentences. Those sentences were set in granite by Congress a decade ago and judges have no control over them; only a presidential pardon can undo them.
Clinton denied nearly all the requests for clemency. One of the few he didn't deny was the request to release one Carlos Vignali. According to federal prosecutors and police investigators, Vignali was the kingpin in a lucrative drug ring that shipped hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minnesota. He was sentenced to 15 years.
It was more than luck or Clinton compassion that sprung Vignali after he had served six years. His rich daddy, an Argentinian immigrant named Horacio Vignali, dumped tens of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of some of California's top politicians. Two of them -- the former speaker of the California assembly, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Rep. Xavier Becerra -- are leading contenders in Los Angeles' upcoming mayoral election.
Both wrote letters and made phone calls asking the White House to consider clemency for Vignali. Their action expose two troubling problems. One is the corrosive influence of money in politics. The other is the racially warped, deeply flawed drug war.
Most drug dealers are poor blacks or Latinos, hustling petty deals on the street. Not Vignali. According to federal prosecutors and police investigators, he owned a pricey condo in an upscale L.A. neighborhood, and unloaded thousands at the gambling tables in Las Vegas. He was the center of a lucrative Minnesota-to-L.A. cocaine drug ring.
Was this the type of drug dealer that Clinton had in mind when he publicly lambasted draconian drug sentences?
According to reports by the Justice Department, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission:
-- The overwhelming majority of those prosecuted in federal courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences of 10 years to life are blacks and Latinos.
-- Only a small percentage of those sentenced to prison terms are major dealers.
-- There is a massive and deep disparity in how blacks (who tend to use crack cocaine) and whites (who tend to use powdered cocaine) are sentenced by federal and state courts.
Currently, more than 2 million inmates pack America's prisons. One million of them are black. A growing number of them were convicted of mostly nonviolent drug crimes. They received stiff sentences under the federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.
Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who mightily defended the administration's policy throughout most of his tenure, shifted gears in the last year, calling the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders bad policy and bad law enforcement.
Clinton and former Attorney General Janet Reno initially backed these laws. After facing fierce pressure from black leaders and civil liberties groups, they gave tepid and much belated support to amending the laws to eliminate the gaping racial disparities. Congress refused to budge, however, and Clinton did not use his executive power to push the issue while he had the chance.
According to federal prosecutors, there were 30 co-defendants in Vignali's drug ring. Many of them were poor, black and much smaller-scale than he was. They were convicted and got maximum sentences under the federal mandatory minimum law. There is little chance any of them will get top politicians to send letters and make phone calls to the White House on their behalf.
Do wealthy political donors routinely expect to get favors for their money? They do. And when those favors are delivered, it confirms public belief that politics is hopelessly soiled by big money, that politicians can be bought and sold. This drives voters from the polls in disgust.
Such favors also fuel public demand for real campaign finance reform. But with the exception of a handful of flawed ballot propositions in California to limit campaign contributions, a bill by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to eradicate soft money contributions and an anemic reform law by California legislators, politicians duck for cover, or figure out ways to water down campaign reform every time.
While Clinton is being pressed to explain the suspect pardon of convicted tax evader and commodities broker Marc Rich, California's top politicians should also be pressed to tell why they lobbied so hard for Vignali's release -- and whether they would do the same for those who don't contribute big money to their campaigns.