Pardon Me, Boys

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Bill and Hillary Clinton have always maintained a hygienic distance between their scandals, like His and Hers towels. He had Monica; she had cattle futures. He rented out the Lincoln Bedroom; she emptied out the Travel Office. Whitewater had separate plot lines: his lost memory, her lost billing records. And for a month, it looked as if the 177 clemencies Clinton granted in his final days were falling neatly into the His column. But last week it became clear that U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White was investigating some that have signs of being community property--the commuted sentences of four members of a Hasidic sect following a meeting, which Hillary attended, between sect leaders and her husband.

There is not much you can do to an ex-President. The realists know it's too late to impeach him and too hard to indict him, since bribery is a difficult charge to prove. But with the news of a broader investigation, the focus of the scandal expands to include not just the Clinton who is worried about his legacy but also the one who is worried about her future. So many of the people who were pardoned had connections to New York that it was only a matter of time before the spotlight expanded from the former President to the sitting Senator.

Not that it wasn't breathtaking to watch a shiny new ex-presidency disappear under a freak mud slide. The debris hurtled by so fast that the New York Times editorial page seemed to run out of synonyms for disgust, revulsion and abuse. Jimmy Carter, the perfect ex-President, broke the cardinal rule of the brotherhood and called Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich "disgraceful." Even Terry McAuliffe, the former President's friend, said that decision had been wrong. Perhaps worst of all, there seemed to be no end to the bodies that might float down the swollen river. Congressional investigators subpoenaed another Clinton fund raiser, Beth Dozoretz, to tell all she knows about his pardon of Rich, the billionaire fugitive living in Switzerland.

And shattering any doubt that Clinton's pardons were shaped like boomerangs was the news, broken by the newspaper of record in the Clinton era, the National Enquirer, that Hillary's brother Hugh Rodham had made $400,000 for helping broker a commutation for a Los Angeles drug dealer and a pardon for a Florida swindler. That changed everything. "The brother showed up on the scene and put her right in the middle of it," says an aide to the House Democratic leadership. Suddenly, talk of a Clinton restoration to the White House seemed more far-fetched than ever. "The 2004 thing was never real," the aide says. "Certainly not now."

The criminal investigation could eventually spread to include any or all the pardons granted in the final daze of Clinton's second term. It seems that anyone who ever knew, talked to or met Bill Clinton in his first 54 years made some kind of last-minute pardon appeal to the President for a friend, relative or spouse. A lot of those pleaders were well heeled or working for folks who were. And so the matter of who got paid for doing all these good deeds--and whether that payment was in dollars or votes, now or later--could keep a prosecutor busy for months if not years.

That's where the question of Senator Clinton and the Skver sect comes in. Hillary Clinton has insisted she played no role in commuting the sentences of the four Hasidim, who stole more than $30 million in government grants, subsidies and loans, and that she did nothing unethical by attending two sessions with the leaders who sought their pardons. The first took place in the Rockland County village of New Square last August, while she was running for the Senate. State party operatives thought the tiny community--which had often voted in a bloc in the past--was a promising one for Hillary in her race against Republican Rick Lazio. Following Hasidic custom, Hillary covered her head and chatted about the village's health-care services from across a coffee table, on which a tall bouquet of flowers served as the traditional screen that Hasidim require between the sexes. As far as anyone knows, that was a campaign event only; no pardons were mentioned.

The next session came four months later, after the sect had delivered nearly 1,400 votes for Hillary and only 12 for Lazio. On the morning of Dec. 22, Grand Rabbi David Twersky and an associate went to the White House and tearfully appealed to the President to pardon Benjamin Berger, David Goldstein, Jacob Elbaum and Kalman Stern. Hillary attended the meeting in the White House Map Room but insists she did not participate in the conversation. "I did not play any role whatsoever," she told the Associated Press. "I had no opinion about it."

Clinton eventually commuted the sentences, but Hillary insists she never discussed the matter with her husband. A chat between President and Senator about pardoning a home-state constituent is no big deal. But federal investigators want to find out if the reduced sentences were traded for support at the ballot box.

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