Federal Prosecutors Investigating Clinton Commutations

NBC - February 23, 2001

NEW YORK, Federal prosecutors are investigating whether former President Clinton commuted the sentences of four convicted swindlers in exchange for Hasidic Jewish votes for his wife during her run for the Senate.

The four men were members of the Hasidic community of New Square, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was elected in November.

U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White is investigating their commutations as part of a probe that is also said to include the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Julia Payne, a spokeswoman for the former president, referred all questions to Clinton attorney David Kendall, who did not immediately return calls for comment.

"Senator Clinton has spoken about this pardon on several occasions and we do not have anything to add at this time," said her spokeswoman, Karen Dunne.

Mrs. Clinton has said previously that she did not discuss the men's fate with Hasidic leaders before the election but sat in on a December meeting with supporters of clemency for them. However, she said she played no part in her husband's decision.

"I did not play any role whatsoever," she said last month. "I had no opinion about it."

It is unusual for a first lady to sit in on a clemency meeting.

The commutations are part of a growing furor over several of the 140 pardons the president made on his last day in office. Also under scrutiny are two pardons for which

Mrs. Clinton's brother Hugh Rodham received $400,000; two pardons on which her campaign treasurer performed legal work; and the possible role of the former president's half-brother, Roger Clinton, in some other cases.

Mrs. Clinton traveled to New Square, in suburban Rockland County, during her Senate campaign and met Grand Rabbi David Twersky. Many Hasidic communities tend to vote in blocs, and because of that, politicians aggressively court their leaders.

Mrs. Clinton received 1,400 votes in New Square; her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, received 12.

The four Hasidic men, Kalmen Stern, David Goldstein, Benjamin Berger and Jacob Elbaum, were convicted of stealing more than $40 million worth of education grants, small business loans and housing subsidies by creating a fictitious religious school to receive government money.

Supporters of the men have not denied their guilt but said they did not keep the money for themselves and gave it instead to a school and residents of the village.

The men were sentenced in 1999 to 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 years in prison. Clinton reduced Berger's sentence from 2 1/2 years to two. The other defendants had their sentences reduced to 2 1/2 years. All four are still behind bars.

"We have not been made aware of any investigation and therefore there's nothing to comment about," said the men's lawyer, Samuel Rosenthal.

The disclosure comes a day after another potentially damaging revelation, Mrs. Clinton's campaign treasurer, William Cunningham III, received $4,000 in legal fees to prepare two pardon applications sent to the Justice Department.

At a news conference Friday, Cunningham denied any impropriety. "I have no qualms about anything I did here," he said. "I am a former federal prosecutor. I am an experienced defense attorney."

Cunningham said neither of the two Arkansas men, restaurateurs Robert Clinton Fain and James Lowell Manning of Little Rock, knew President or Mrs. Clinton. Cunningham said that he never spoke with either of the Clintons about the cases, and that the two men are supporters of President Bush and made no contributions to Mrs. Clinton's campaign.

"The work that I did had nothing to do with my responsibilities as treasurer of the campaign. In the light of day, I think there was no conflict and no appearance of conflict," Cunningham said.

On Friday, Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer and Clinton family friend, said he pitched the idea for the two men's pardons that ultimately were handled by Cunningham.

The men were convicted in 1982 on income tax fraud charges. They completed their sentences in 1983 but sought pardons because they were prohibited under Arkansas law to hold liquor licenses and obtain financing. They were also unable to obtain hunting licenses.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page