Bill, How Low Can You Go?

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DOJ pardon attorney Adams (left) and former deputy attorney general Holder confer

President Clinton's pardon of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich ignited the firestorm — but inside the Justice Department, career prosecutors are also burning over the clemency grant for Manhattan lawyer Harvey Weinig, sentenced in 1996 to 11 years in prison for facilitating an extortion-kidnapping scheme and helping launder at least $19 million for the Cali cocaine cartel. In Weinig's case, Clinton didn't bypass the Department of Justice — he defied it.

When Weinig petitioned DOJ for a commuted sentenced last April, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White of New York — whose office also indicted Rich — objected. Justice pardon attorney Roger Adams agreed, and so did Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, who sent a formal memorandum to White House counsel Beth Nolan with the department's negative views.

But Reid Weingarten, Weinig's well-connected lawyer, took his case to Nolan, Clinton chief of staff John Podesta and presidential confidant Bruce Lindsey, pleading that Weinig's law professor wife Alice and two sons had suffered enough. "I submitted a binder that made people cry," Weingarten told TIME, though he wouldn't release the names of those who wrote letters on Weinig's behalf. "It was very compelling."

Perhaps even more persuasive was former White House aide David Dreyer, who is related by marriage to Weinig. "I think of him as my cousin," Dreyer says, explaining that he appealed to Podesta and Nolan for "an act of mercy."

"Harvey went to prison, he knew he'd made a mistake, both his sons were profoundly affected by this and his wife was laboring on alone," Dreyer says. "It was my hope something could be done to save this family."

Weingarten says Weinig's sentence was longer than any of his 22 co-defendants' — and besides, he was not a mastermind, but, as one of his defense team put it, "uncommonly stupid." Weingarten and Dreyer say they did not talk to Clinton personally, but the message got through. In his last hours as President, Clinton slashed Weinig's sentence to five years and 270 days.

Last week, White, reportedly fuming, released transcripts of secret government tapes that recorded Weinig's scheme to embezzle $2.4 million from the Cali drug lords. They appear damning, and evidence of, if not uncommon stupidity, at least an uncommon lack of regard for the vengeance of drug kingpins:

"We're dealing with people who are total assholes who are out of control, who are scumbag, lying cheats," Weinig told his skittish partner. "F___ 'em.! F___ 'em! I'm taking a million dollars and let's see [them] get it from me. "

Weinig will be going home in April — just in time, perhaps, to face a fresh set of investigators.