Clintons let Gore take the fall

The pardon of an herbal-remedy salesman was initially pinned on the vice president, as the first couple kept quiet.

Published February 22, 2001 6:59PM (EST)

For some members of former Vice President Al Gore's erstwhile campaign, a disturbing angle of the pardon of Glenn Braswell -- who Hillary Clinton's brother, attorney Hugh Rodham, was secretly representing, it was reported on Wednesday -- was that the Clintons initially seemed more than willing to let Gore take the blame for it.

Braswell, a Miami businessman who sells controversial herbal remedies for baldness and obesity, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in 1983 for mail fraud, perjury and tax evasion. Braswell, however, had been under investigation by federal prosecutors for what they call "a massive tax-evasion and money-laundering scheme" committed since then.

The Braswell pardon, it seems almost redundant to say, did not go through the normal Department of Justice vetting procedures. And when reporters looked for an explanation as to why Braswell would be pardoned at all, especially in the face of the new investigation, there was only one immediate and apparent link.

"Why did Braswell's request rise to the top of the pile?" asked ABC News' Jackie Judd on "World News Tonight" on Feb. 6. "That is unclear. He has no apparent ties to the former president or to the Democratic Party. The only known connection seems to be that his attorney, Kendall Coffey, represented Vice President Gore in the Florida recount."

Judd's nuanced and tentative mention of Kendall Coffey wasn't always followed, of course.

"Gore Link to Pardoned Pill-Pusher," read the headline in the Feb. 7 New York Post.

"Let's take a look at Braswell," ranted John McLaughlin on the Feb. 12 "The McLaughlin Group." "His attorney was Kendall Coffey on Gore's Florida legal team."

The world learned on Wednesday, however, of the identity of another Braswell attorney, one perhaps a touch more influential with President Clinton than Coffey: his brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham. The National Enquirer reports that, two days after Clinton pardoned Braswell, his company, G.B. Data Systems of Marina del Rey, Calif., wired $200,000 to Rodham's Florida law firm's bank account.

Allowing the Braswell pardon to be blamed on Coffey (and thus Gore) was all the more ludicrous because of the strained Coffey-Clinton relationship. Never close to Clinton or Rodham to begin with, Coffey was named a U.S. attorney in 1993 almost entirely on the recommendation of Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. But after an incident in which Coffey bit a stripper, Coffey was quickly and embarrassingly fired by Attorney General Janet Reno one day before then-GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, who was making a campaign issue out of Clinton appointees, was due to arrive in Miami.

In the spring of 2000, Coffey represented Elián González's Miami relatives and harshly criticized both Clinton and Reno on that issue. Coffey was brought into the Gore legal team after Election Day 2000 chiefly because of his and attorney Ben Kuehne's involvement in the legal case that resulted in the 1997 Miami mayor's race being overturned amid allegations of voter fraud. But by the time Coffey and Gore began developing this fairly distant professional relationship -- Gore mainly dealt with legal team chieftains Ron Klain and David Boies -- Gore and Clinton were fairly estranged.

Coffey's representation of Braswell, therefore, would seem to have little to do with Clinton's pardon, as opposed to Rodham's involvement. Yet the Clinton camp, apparently, seemed perfectly willing to let Gore, via Coffey, share in pardon muck. And, according to a story in Thursday's Los Angeles Times, Clinton may very well have known of his brother-in-law's involvement long ago. "A longtime advisor to the Clintons, who asked not to be named, said that the president knew of Rodham's involvement when he approved the clemencies," according to the story.

Of course, to do otherwise would have acknowledged that the Clintons knew Rodham was involved in Braswell's pardon as well as the one of drug dealer Carlos Vignali, and they are claiming ignorance of that.

"Yesterday, I became aware of press inquiries that Hugh Rodham received a contingency fee in connection with a pardon application for Glenn Braswell and a fee for work on Carlos Vignali's commutation application," reads a Wednesday statement from former President Clinton. "Neither Hillary nor I had any knowledge of such payments. We are deeply disturbed by these reports and have insisted that Hugh return any monies received."

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also issued a statement saying that she was "disturbed to learn that my brother, Hugh Rodham, received fees in connection with two clemency applications. He did not speak with me about these applications."

Of course, Hugh Rodham is not the only political brother whose shameless lust for Braswell's money has gotten him into hot water. In the spring of 2000 -- at the urging of one of his and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's fundraisers, Ann Herberger -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush penned an article about healthcare for Braswell's alternative health magazine, the Journal of Longevity. Braswell and his companies, according to the St. Petersburg Times, had given the Florida GOP $150,000 and George W. Bush $25,000.

Jeb's story in Braswell's mag, complete with a photo of him and his brother George, was published in the July issue. Though his original story had heralded "the best of alternative medicine," it hadn't endorsed Braswell's rather dubious products -- though the magazine's editor had added passages to make it seem as if he had. The subsequent retraction blurred over the basic, questionable fact that Jeb had written a story for Braswell's magazine, and that he and his brother and the Florida GOP had taken $175,000 from a convicted felon -- every dollar of which was returned after the St. Petersburg Times story was published.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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