'Humanitarianism' Cited in Clemency for Lawyer

John Mintz - Washington Post Staff - March 3, 2001

Harvey Weinig would not seem to be an obvious candidate for presidential clemency. The Manhattan lawyer had pleaded guilty to participating in one of the largest drug money-laundering cases in New York history -- helping the Cali cartel -- and had even played a small role in a kidnapping.

But Weinig's name was on the list of 176 people who were pardoned or had sentences commuted by President Clinton on his last day in office. It was no random selection, either -- a former Clinton aide who is a Weinig relative had put in a good word for him with top administration officials in the president's waning days, and a lawyer who had represented many administration officials was hired to press his case.

Weinig's situation has been lost in the shuffle of more controversial pardons, such as that of fugitive financier Marc Rich. But the president's grant of clemency to Weinig -- who had his sentence commuted after serving five years of an 11-year prison term -- shows that, as in the more celebrated case, access to the White House can make a critical difference.

The U.S. attorney's office in New York that had prosecuted Weinig bitterly opposed the commutation, and officials at the Justice Department's headquarters here weighed in against it as well.

People familiar with the White House deliberations say the president was swayed by a packet of materials prepared by Weinig's lawyer that described in detail the emotionally shattering impact his imprisonment had on his family, in particular his two teenage sons.

"There's no question the president was moved by arguments of humanitarianism," said Reid Weingarten, Weinig's attorney. "A commutation of Harvey Weinig's sentence was justified."

Sentenced in 1996 after pleading guilty to two counts in connection with the money-laundering case, Weinig will now be released in April from his cell at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J.

The pardon has inflamed the Colombian public, which for years has resented U.S. pressure that the Bogota government crack down on cocaine dealers there. "This situation is quite disappointing and delivers the wrong message," Alfonso Valdivieso, Colombia's ambassador to the United Nations and a former top narcotics prosecutor, said in a radio interview.

The U.S. prosecutors who investigated Weinig, led by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White in Manhattan, were also furious with Clinton's commutation. Days later, they got the judge in the case to unseal a document they had written for his sentencing five years ago. It described Weinig's nonchalance upon learning that one of his fellow conspirators had kidnapped a man to demand payment of a debt. "Weinig's conduct, particularly as a lawyer, was chilling," said the prosecutors' 1996 sentencing report.

Weinig's appeal certainly was helped by the easy access his lawyer, Weingarten, enjoyed at the White House. Having represented former agriculture secretary Mike Espy in his corruption trial, and other high-ranking Clinton aides, Weingarten knew many top administration officials. After prosecutors shot down his clemency petition, he took it to White House counsel Beth Nolan and deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey, one of the president's closest friends.

But the strongest arguments for Weinig were advanced by David Dreyer, who was deputy White House communications director in Clinton's first term and was later a top aide to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. Weinig is Dreyer's cousin by marriage, and the two have been close for years. He spoke about his relative to Nolan and John D. Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff.

Former White House officials say that like many other pardon requests, the Weinig appeal set off a debate.

"It was done on the basis of a humanitarian plea that was made to us by someone we knew who had rendered good public service and was a relative of Mr. Weinig," Podesta said on NBC News's "Meet the Press." "Some of the people in the office thought it was a bad call, that it tilted the other way, but for me it was a close call and, on a humanitarian basis, I recommended it to the president, and he granted it."

"Harvey is a good person who was extremely involved in the lives of his sons," said Dreyer, now a corporate consultant, summarizing the arguments he made to his former colleagues. "No one's saying Harvey didn't commit any crimes and didn't make any mistakes."

Moreover, Dreyer and Weingarten noted that Weinig was less involved in running the money-laundering ring than his two main co-conspirators -- Weinig's former law partner, Robert Hirsch, and a former firefighter, Richard Spence -- but that he received a sentence almost four times longer than theirs.

Mark Goodman, who prosecuted Weinig, said: "It's wrong to say Harvey was treated unfairly" because, unlike his two confederates, he refused to help investigators when confronted.

Weinig and his partners launched their money-laundering scheme for the Cali cocaine cartel in 1993, and soon the ring employed dozens of people who picked up large bales of cash and deposited them in banks. Among the employees were two Brooklyn rabbis, a New York police officer who hid dollar bills in his police station locker, and a Bulgarian diplomat. Prosecutors said they moved more than $19 million in two years.

Weinig, Hirsch and Spence started stealing small sums of money, and they lost more through incompetence. At about the time the discrepancy totaled $2 million, the three realized that they could be in trouble with their clients in Cali. So they decided to fake Spence's indictment -- they sent a bogus court paper to Colombia -- and explained to the drug dealers that he had been imprisoned. But the Colombians didn't believe it, and federal agents, who by this time were tapping the cocaine dealers' telephones, heard them discussing plans to kill Hirsch.

Sensing a chance to scare Hirsch, agents disclosed their probe to Hirsch, warned him he was in danger and persuaded him to start wearing a recording device to tape conversations with his partner, Weinig. Hirsch's cooperation and Spence's decision to turn state's evidence were the reasons they got lighter terms.

At Weinig's sentencing, prosecutors cited an incident in which Spence, unable to collect $237,000 from a man who had defrauded him, had associates take the man to a hotel room for several days until he agreed to sign over property to Spence as payment. On recordings made by Hirsch, Weinig was heard describing the kidnapping while it was underway. Weinig asked lawyers in his office to oversee the property closing in which the victim signed the property over to Spence.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy said that on the tape Weinig sounded "very flip," adding that this seemed inconsistent with the lawyer's expressed love for his family. He sentenced Weinig to the maximum, 11 years.

Attorneys for Weinig noted that if the government felt the kidnapping was so grave, they shouldn't have let Spence, the person who ordered it, get off so lightly.

Weinig's clemency appeal contained dozens of letters attesting to his good character as a lawyer and as a parent before his conviction -- for example, his years of free legal work for indigent people and how he provided school tuition for poor children. Other letters, from inmates and prison staff, described his work tutoring prisoners and helping them with appeals.

But Weingarten said the most powerful arguments were details about the suffering of his client's family -- which apparently worked with Clinton. "I was touched by the plight of the children," Weingarten said. "It's a very sad story."