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Convict's Father a Wealthy, Well-Liked Mediator on the L.A. Political Scene

     A successful businessman and middle-level player in California politics, parking lot owner Horacio Carlos Vignali parlayed his pocketbook, his affability and his contacts with elected officials in the longshot lobbying effort that won an eleventh-hour pardon from President Clinton for his drug-dealing son.
     Political staff members and consultants said Monday that in recent years Vignali often put on an apron to work an enormous barbecue grill that he towed to campaign fund-raisers, where he mingled with some of the politicians who went to bat for his son.
     "He's just this big, genuine guy that everyone seems to love," said Parke Skelton, a consultant to former Assembly Speaker and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, one of the politicians who helped. "He'll be there wearing this apron, covered in barbecue sauce, making these huge slabs of beef."
     An Argentine immigrant who says he came to this country 40 years ago, worked hard and got lucky in business, Vignali did more than cook for politicians. He gave thousands of dollars, crossing ideological and party lines.
     Political aides said he also served as an emissary for other businesspeople who needed help from government and sometimes served as a peacemaker among elected officials and contenders. His emphasis was on strengthening the Latino community by mediating disputes, the aides said.
     Asked to describe the degree of his clout, one aide said he is "halfway between trouble-shooter and power broker."
     "That's about right," said Henry Lozano, longtime chief of staff to Democratic U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, another L.A. mayoral candidate, who lobbied for the pardon. "He's always trying to get the Latino community together, [asking], 'Why can't you guys get along?' "
     Lozano said Vignali tried to broker peace between Victor Griego and Nick Pacheco while both were squaring off in a battle two years ago to succeed former L.A. City Councilman Richard Alatorre. The effort failed. Pacheco won.
     Campaign contribution records show that Vignali's political giving intensified after the 1993 arrest of his son. Carlos Vignali, then 22, was convicted of participating in a drug ring that shipped more than 800 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minnesota, where it was converted to crack.
     Authorities said the younger Vignali financed the drug purchases in Los Angeles. He served six years of a 15-year sentence before Clinton issued him a pardon on his last day in office.
     Vignali claims his son was railroaded by prosecutors. "They screwed my son, OK?" he told a reporter a few days ago, "just because he knew some people."
     Carlos Vignali had no prior record and was convicted even though no drugs were found on him and he had no money, the elder Vignali added.
     "To keep somebody incarcerated like an animal for 15 years?" he asked. "And there's hundreds of them out there with the same problem. Black people and Latino people especially. Everybody doesn't get the same."
     Vignali has downplayed his role in securing the pardon--a lobbying effort that involved letters from many prominent California Latino politicians. Minnesota law enforcement officials are fuming and the pardon baffled many at the U.S. Department of Justice.
     On Monday, while standing on a sidewalk next to a parking lot he owns near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, Horatio Vignali, a stout man dressed in a dark cardigan sweater and black trousers, said only, "I am very happy the community came together and helped my son."
     Vignali has friends in both political parties. He said he is a Democrat, but he gave $25,000 to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994. Campaign finance reports show he held a fund-raiser for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis last June that raised more than $75,000, including $25,900 from Vignali himself. Vignali had given Davis $23,500 before he became governor. "I love the governor," he said. "I wish I had more money to give him."
     Acquaintances say Vignali likes to portray himself as a small-time body shop owner who hit the jackpot after developers decided to build Staples Center near his property.
     Public records show he has been involved in several businesses, some involving downtown real estate and some, from their names--Cast and Crew and Special EFX--suggesting a connection with entertainment.
     State records also list him as president of C&H Used Cars Inc. and owner of C&H Body & Auto Repair. Both of those businesses were among more than two dozen sued by the state of California and Farmers Insurance Exchange in 1999 for allegedly inflating repair bills and charging for services they did not perform.
     Farmers spokeswoman Kitty Miller said the lawsuit was settled on confidential terms soon after it was filed. Vignali could not be reached for comment on the suit.
     The downtown body shop was the site of a January 1999 fund-raiser for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, shortly after Baca was sworn in, according to a source who was among the 250 or so guests. Last year, Vignali co-hosted a fund-raiser for Becerra.
     In the mid-1990s, he hosted a daylong retreat at his gated Pacific Palisades home, complete with movie theater and swimming pool, for the staff of Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez, according to a source.
     The councilman and his staffers talked about how to work closer with constituents and organizing community meetings. At the end of the retreat, Vignali served one of his trademark barbecues--burgers and carne asada.


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