|Illustrations by Edward T. Sanders|
Tony Adams and his partner, Gerry Wehr, smelled something fishy when they
arrived in Los Angeles back in 1994 to arrest Carlos Vignali, the target of one
of Minnesota’s biggest drug cases. The Minneapolis narcotics officers had caught
the 22-year-old Vignali on a wiretap conspiring to distribute crack cocaine in
the Twin Cities. They checked into the Hilton on Grand Avenue under names known
only to their local contacts at the DEA.
Within hours, they say, they received a call from defense lawyer Anthony Brooklier, who represented an alleged associate of Vignali. Strangely aware of how to contact the visiting officers, Brooklier, a high-paid mouthpiece for celebrities and accused gangsters, wanted to know what the officers were up to. Soon they would discover that Brooklier’s client had fingered not just Carlos Vignali but also Vignali’s father, Carlos “Horacio” Vignali, as major drug traffickers.
Brooklier wasn’t the only one who seemed ahead of the game. A local DEA agent told Adams and Wehr right where to look for the younger Vignali and showed them written statements offered by Brooklier’s client, who described in detail how the elder Vignali allegedly ran drugs out of his auto-body shop on Figueroa Street, near the L.A. Convention Center.
The DEA report intrigued the Minnesota cops. During their four-day stay in Los Angeles, after taking in a Dodger game, they staked out the body shop and quickly grew suspicious about father Vignali. But they returned to Minnesota with more questions than answers. It would be eight years before a congressional investigation produced DEA documents, one dating as far back as 1976, that described Horacio Vignali as an alleged underworld figure who boasted of trafficking in heroin.
Looking back, the Minneapolis officers say they got an odd vibe when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy went looking for the younger Vignali at his father’s place of business, only to be scolded later by his supervisor, now Sheriff Lee Baca, for harassing the elder Vignali. Baca had been friends with the father since 1991, when they met during Richard Riordan’s mayoral campaign. “Who sweats an officer for trying to serve a federal arrest warrant, and why?” asks Adams. Baca ended up calling the father and talked him into having his son drop by the auto-body shop for questioning; he came in and was arrested. He would serve only six years of a 15-year term before receiving clemency from President Clinton in 2001.
Today Adams and Wehr are back in the grind of smaller investigations in their relatively quiet northern state and are still steaming about their brush with the harsh realities of big-city law enforcement more than a decade ago. And Horacio Vignali — except to downtown insiders who are watching his real estate empire grow — is publicly shunned. He has been relegated to the history books for his effort to gain his son’s early release from prison, which drew support from a cadre of L.A. politicians, including Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa. Splashed on news pages four years ago in what became known as “Pardongate,” the story was reduced to a soundbite in Jim Hahn’s 2001 campaign, when he attacked Villaraigosa for coming to the aid of an unsavory drug dealer.
Now, as Villaraigosa prepares to lead the city, many other officials who supported the clemency effort remain players in the downtown political establishment. And so does father Vignali, one of the most powerful property owners of a nice chunk of downtown real estate primed to be developed in the continuing remake of downtown Los Angeles.
Today Vignali is where he has been for 30 years, in the South Park area of downtown, where he owns parking lots and warehouses in the shadows of the Convention Center and Staples Center. With real estate hotter than ever in that part of town, and the conversion of industrial property in vogue, his longstanding ownership of parcels in key locations gives him an important role in mapping the future of Los Angeles. Even more so considering that media mogul and reclusive billionaire Philip Anschutz is building a sports-and-entertainment district in South Park that his company, Anschutz Entertainment Group, is touting as the next Times Square. Such good fortune is far more than what Adams and Wehr think the Vignalis deserve.
Vignali’s money is no good in politics anymore, but business is still business, and he still has a few alliances with some who have access to City Hall. Vignali, a man who might have stayed below the radar forever if it weren’t for his drug-dealing son, has already brokered one land deal with Anschutz.
Yet mention of the name Vignali draws uncomfortable silences, blank stares and unreturned phone calls from many politicians and some of the most active real estate brokers working downtown’s gold mine. Which might seem strange given the elder Vignali’s success in business and his knack for acquiring property that the city finds desirable. Having been part of a nationwide scandal, the Vignalis are wedged somewhere between legitimacy and infamy. They remain somewhat a mystery. They did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Father Vignali’s friends in politics — who wrote letters on Carlos Vignali’s behalf — have backed away from him. Pardongate, it seems, left too much of a stigma for its survivors to handle. After all, Congressman Xavier Becerra still holds office. So does Supervisor Gloria Molina. Former Councilman Richard Alatorre, a recovering cocaine addict once banished from City Hall by a graft conviction, has been reborn as a consultant. Former Councilman Mike Hernandez, who also admitted to abusing coke, found new life as a deputy to council members Bernard Parks and Jan Perry. Former state Senator Richard Polanco retired from politics amid scandal talk but as a consultant can be expected to exert influence at City Hall. Mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg could play a role in Villaraigosa’s administration. Cardinal Roger Mahony is still cardinal. And while former U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas resigned in shame after lobbying for the younger Vignali’s release from prison, Sheriff Baca is up for re-election next year. With too much to lose, current and former officials avoid questions and act as if the Vignalis are irrelevant.
The two Minnesota officers at the center of the Vignali case remain bewildered by the media’s portrayal of the father as a lovable advocate for his son’s freedom. Only after Pardongate was over did the White House “inadvertently” produce DEA documents that revealed startling allegations about Horacio Vignali. The allegations flashed on the L.A. Times’ front page for a day but never gained traction. Adams and Wehr still have trouble swallowing the image of Vignalis’ money and charm being enough to move elected officials, including the county’s top law enforcer and the region’s top federal prosecutor, to extraordinary and inappropriate lengths. Their police sense is offended.
They are not alone. Current and former federal prosecutors and a federal judge in Minneapolis suggest something else was going on — perhaps something more consistent with the give and take of big-time drug enforcement. Having shared their unvarnished opinions with their counterparts in Los Angeles and talked to reporters at the Times to no avail, they are astonished at the city’s ability to avoid airing its dirty laundry.
“You got that many people upset in Minnesota, you can figure there’s a lot of stuff that still needs to be exposed,” says a federal agent familiar with the Vignali case. “But the whole truth will probably never come out without a grand-jury investigation.”
Gerry Wehr ambles into a Minneapolis coffeehouse on a recent morning. Now
a homicide detective, Wehr, dressed in baggy jeans, a windbreaker and a University
of Minnesota cap that covers a crew cut, is just getting off the night shift.
Moments later, his former partner, Tony Adams, an NCAA basketball player turned
narcotics and gang-intervention officer, now a unformed patrol officer, strolls
in. “Vanity Fair was already up here to talk with us,” says Adams,
dressed in street clothes on his day off and wearing the grim expression of a
cop whose view of the world has soured. “Never did a damn thing with it, though.
Must be waiting for Hillary [Clinton] to run for re-election so they can go after
her. The L.A. Times was here too. They knew what was going on.”
The Minneapolis officers started getting calls from drug-task-force members and the media in California the minute Carlos Vignali was granted clemency in 2001, says Wehr, with a ready smile that displaces some harsher emotions. “They couldn’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head. “To let that kid out of jail because of his father’s connections was inconceivable, particularly to those of us who had observed the father.” Wehr recalls that he and Adams had some time to kill when they came to Los Angeles to arrest the younger Vignali, known to them from hours of listening to his conversations as “C-Low.” They did some surveillance on the elder Vignali. Something about his appearance seemed out of place in the gritty confines of South Park. “We were waiting for C-Low to show up at his dad’s auto-body shop, then all these older guys in expensive suits started rolling up. We were like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” The officers noticed the older men also liked to dine in style, favoring the Pacific Dining Car, on Sixth Street. Wehr laughs at a small irony: “Right around the corner from that restaurant was the offices for the federal drug task force.”
The Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force is the U.S. government’s primary weapon against high-level drug trafficking. A federally funded unit that incorporates state and local officers, the task force enabled the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles to convict numerous international drug traffickers in the 1990s. At one point the feds shut down three major banks in Mexico whose executives engaged in money laundering. Proceeds from drug seizures and asset forfeitures are funneled back into the system to fund more sting operations aimed at busting up major drug rings.
The task force already had a file on the Vignalis — but nothing they were willing to share. The local DEA agent who told Wehr and Adams where to look for the younger Vignali would only let them glance at a report on the father, according to the officers. “We didn’t know anything about the father,” Wehr says. “We were there to arrest C-Low.” Wehr and Adams look back and see a missed opportunity to expand their investigation. “It wasn’t done,” Adams says. “We stuck with C-Low, because that was all we had. It made no sense to us.”
There was another intriguing lead: Brooklier’s client, Dana Gold. In 1987, Gold and four others were arrested in Los Angeles on a raid of six locations that produced 137 pounds of cocaine with an estimated value of $23 million, twenty 100-ounce silver bars, $271,000 in cash, two Mercedes-Benz cars and 83 stolen men’s suits, according to news reports. Police Chief Daryl Gates hailed the bust as a breakup of a drug network that extended throughout California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado and Louisiana.
In 1992, Gold was convicted of possession of narcotics and conspiracy to distribute. However, after a judge released him on bail and he was re-arrested on federal drug charges in 1993, Gold, a former boxing promoter who investigators say was once involved with the R&B singer Cherrelle, appears to have become a source of information.
According to the Minneapolis officers, Gold was the informant in the DEA report who had alleged that the elder Vignali, along with business partner George Torres, owner of Numero Uno Markets, were part of a major drug-trafficking operation. Years later they would hear from a Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputy and a Downey police officer who had been interested in the business activities of the elder Vignali and Torres all along. The Santa Barbara deputy would tell the Minneapolis officers about a landing strip a stone’s throw from Torres’ ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley. Yet at the time of their visit to Los Angeles, the Minneapolis officers say, no one at the DEA seemed interested in connecting the younger Vignali’s activities to something potentially larger. After they arrested C-Low, Adams and Wehr returned to Minneapolis and turned the case over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Back home, the officers decided to interview Gold in preparation for trial. They located him in a federal prison in Atlanta and had U.S. Marshals bring him to Minneapolis, where they recall Brooklier sat in on the interview. Brooklier declined to comment for this story. However, Gold’s Atlanta-based attorney at the time, Steve Sabow, says: “I negotiated a deal for Dana, and as far as I know, he lived up to his end of the deal,” adding that Gold was sentenced on October 7, 1993, to 180 months in federal prison but through cooperation had it reduced to 120 months on June 2, 1995.
Gold burned up the Minneapolis officers’ ears with stories of his dealings with C-Low, about how the elder Vignali financed the whole operation, and about trips to Las Vegas, where the Vignalis allegedly took up an entire floor at Caesar’s Palace and ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling debts. According to the officers, they later determined that while in Las Vegas, the elder Vignali was visited by suspected drug dealers from Mexico, whom the DEA database labeled as “highly classified.” “How long has the investigation into Horacio Vignali gone bad?” Adams wonders aloud, as he revisits his frustration.
More than 20 defendants pleaded guilty before the Vignali trial in 1994, which
involved six defendants and dozens of pounds of cocaine — C-Low being the West
Coast supplier for the Minneapolis drug dealers. The magnitude of the case left
a mark on the participants, at least on the government side, which only added
to their anger when a media frenzy broke out in 2001 over former President Clinton’s
executive pardons and grants of clemency. Wehr and Adams recall Vignali’s defense
lawyers being heavily preoccupied during the trial by what the prosecution intended
to do with Dana Gold. “That’s all they seemed to care about,” Adams says. “They
were scared about Dana testifying.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Dunne, head of the narcotics division in the Minneapolis office, prosecuted the case with then–Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Reilly. Dunne and Reilly, now a Hennepin County judge in the juvenile justice branch, agree with Adams and Wehr that questions remain about the elder Vignali. “The defense was playing games with us to find out what Dana Gold said about the father,” Dunne says during a recent interview at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis. Yet Gold, who was released from federal prison in 2001, never testified. He could not be located for comment. “My role was to convict the son, and we did not see testimony regarding the father to be central to our case,” Dunne says. “When the defense called the father, his testimony was limited to family issues between the father and son; it didn’t open the door for any aggressive cross examination.”
A few blocks away, Reilly sits in her chambers and recalls with disdain the tactics of Vignali defense attorney Danny Davis, who argued in his opening statement that C-Low, a Latino male, did not fit with what Davis described as a “black cocaine ring.” Throughout the trial, Horacio and his wife, Luz Vignali, sat impassively watching, according to Reilly, the former prosecutor. Dressed in expensive clothes, they wined and dined defense lawyers each night and stayed at the elegant Marquette Hotel. Reilly acknowledges the frustration of Wehr and Adams. “We all felt the kid was a sacrificial lamb who was told to lie down and do his time, and that the family would take care of him when he got out. That punk kid was not the mastermind for kilos from South America. Our sense was that the father was well connected. But we could never tell who in Los Angeles was protecting him.”
Young Carlos Vignali was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 1995. The elder Vignali began donating generous amounts to political campaigns. Over the next six years he would give more than $160,000 to local and state officials and congressional representatives who put their necks on the line. Each request to the White House for leniency was slightly different from the other — Villaraigosa argued the kid was innocent; Alatorre complained the sentence was too harsh; Polanco urged a review of the case — but together they had the cumulative effect of getting the president’s attention. When Clinton granted the younger Vignali clemency in January 2001, a backlash occurred — one that lacked mention of the allegations swirling around Horacio Vignali.
The Times ran with lengthy exposés on Pardongate, which turned the Vignali family’s history into legend. The story emerged of a hard-working immigrant from Argentina who came to the United States in 1962 with virtually nothing, established an auto-repair business and became fabulously wealthy through real estate and other investments. It was the American Dream, tainted only by the bad son who got into drug distribution and got burned, requiring his rich daddy to come to his rescue. In February 2001, the Times published a commentary by associate editor Frank del Olmo that defended the elder Vignali and praised Baca for his “creative flexibility” in his approach to law enforcement. “If only others in [Vignali’s] situation also could get the same second chance he’s getting,” del Olmo, who died in 2004, wrote.
For those who joined in Vignali’s cause, embarrassment was complete. Consequences were next to nil. Mike Hernandez, an early Vignali supporter, was forced into drug rehab to avoid his own criminal record. Alatorre was up to his neck in an unrelated criminal probe, after a battle with alcohol and cocaine. (Hernandez would not comment. Alatorre could not be reached.) Villaraigosa paid the price only after the Hahn campaign torpedoed him with some of the sleaziest ads in modern political history. Molina went unscathed. Baca became indignant, insisting he was vouching for the father, not the son. Mayorkas resigned and offered a seemingly heartfelt admission that he had done wrong. Then he receded into the private sector as a partner at O’Melveny & Meyers.
The cops and prosecutors and even the judge in Minnesota who sentenced the younger Vignali were astounded. Some were furious. U.S. Attorney Todd Jones chastised Mayorkas for crossing jurisdictional lines and contacting the White House. Dunne and Reilly harbored a sense of injustice. U.S. District Judge David Doty expressed his dismay over the grant of clemency, as the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling. Adams and Wehr received phone calls from law enforcers in California who were beside themselves — including the Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputy whom Baca had dressed down. “I can see low-life city councilmen going out on a limb for this guy if the money was there, but Baca, the sheriff, that is not right,” Adams says. “If I did something like that I’d be doing time.” Baca renounced Vignali in the aftermath, and now says, through a spokesman, “Write whatever you want, at the time of my letter to the White House, all information available indicated that Horacio Vignali’s reputation was impeccable.” It would take a full year after the pardon scandal broke for the story to unfold. Folks in Minneapolis stewed.
“Justice Undone: Clemency Decisions in the Clinton White House,” House
Report 107-454, documents the involvement of Hugh Rodham, the brother of Hillary
Rodham Clinton, in the Vignali affair. Rodham was Horacio Vignali’s chief lobbyist
inside the White House and received more than $200,000 for his services. The two
met through Los Angeles attorney James Casso in October 2000, according to Los
Angeles real estate broker Luis Valenzuela, who was copied on Vignali’s check
Released in March 2002 by the Congressional Committee on Government Reform, the report is part primer on executive privilege, part investigation of Vignali’s clemency, among others, and part indictment of the officials involved with the whole debacle. The report states that in 2001, after being stonewalled by the Bush administration, the committee received documents “inadvertently” released by the National Archives and Records Administration, including a report by White House pardon attorney Roger Adams objecting to clemency for Vignali. DEA documents pertaining to Horacio Vignali were attached. A follow-up investigative story by the Times’ Ted Rohrlich finally addressed what Wehr, Adams, Reilly and Dunne had known all along, and what Mayorkas and Baca claimed they had no reason to know: that the DEA long suspected Horacio Vignali was a major drug trafficker with ties to organized crime.
The DEA documents, obtained by the L.A. Weekly, date back to 1976, when the elder Vignali allegedly negotiated with ATF agents to sell a machine gun and allegedly told them that he had smuggled heroin into the country using automobiles. In 1992, the younger Vignali is alleged to have driven vehicles connected to gangs engaged in drug smuggling. A 1993 DEA report states that the younger Vignali built hidden compartments into a truck for hauling cocaine, and that his father, known as “Pops,” was a supplier for his son. An additional 1993 report describes the Vignalis as heavy gamblers in Las Vegas, friends of the manager of Caesar’s Palace and associates of Numero Uno Markets owner George Torres. The report states that Torres, who like the elder Vignali has a rags-to-riches story and trades heavily in real estate, was worth between $200 million and $300 million.
According to 1993 and 1997 DEA reports, Torres allegedly maintained a warehouse full of luxury vehicles, antique low riders and tractor-trailers used to move cocaine by concealing drugs inside laundry detergent and jalapeño-chile cans. He and Vignali were identified as immediate targets of a drug-trafficking investigation, the report states. The report further states that the DEA had been informed of allegations by investigators from L.A. IMPACT, a joint-powers criminal justice agency, and by the Santa Barbara Regional Narcotics Enforcement Team, that the Torres drug-trafficking outfit came into existence in the mid-1980s, distributing 1,800 kilos by the early 1990s.
A 1998 DEA report states that the elder Vignali was believed to be a financial partner in the Torres organization, allegedly setting up meetings between Torres and “individuals with extensive criminal backgrounds.” They were moving 100 kilos per month, the report states. In 1996, the report states, Torres’ grocery stores had sales of $50 million. Investigators believed he was laundering drug money through his stores and real estate transactions. Public records show Torres and Vignali engaged in numerous multimillion-dollar property transactions, either as partners or on opposite sides of a deal. While the elder Vignali was known as the well-heeled businessman who rubbed elbows with politicians, Torres was described in DEA reports as a tattooed heavy who flaunted Mafia connections and liked to intimidate his adversaries.
The District Attorney’s Office confirms that Torres, also known as Jaime Ernesto Garcia, has been convicted of several gun possession charges, including a probation violation for being a felon in possession of a gun. A local judge later terminated his probation and reduced his gun charge to a misdemeanor. The Los Angeles Police Department, the 1998 report states, named Torres a suspect in two murders. LAPD sources confirm he is still under investigation for the suspected murder of a former employee gone missing and presumed dead. His attorneys, Michael Adelson and Robert Eisfelder, confirm that detectives searched his business in late 2004 but insist police found nothing to implicate him in anything illegal. They say he has cooperated fully with the authorities, adding that the missing employee, Ignacio Mesa, is wanted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine by federal authorities in Alabama. “As we look closely into his affairs we find him to be a Horatio Alger–type figure, a self-made man whose story is an inspiration,” Eisfelder says. The DEA reports are untrue, according to Adelson. “They are based on layers of hearsay by persons with something to gain and whom the government has not identified,” he says. Torres’ lawyers say he no longer has a business or personal relationship with the elder Vignali.
Andy Dunne says he talked to U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas on two separate
occasions about the elder Vignali’s campaign to free his son. According to the
committee report, Mayorkas also discussed the matter with Todd Jones, then the
U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis. Jones told the committee his advice to Mayorkas
was “Don’t go there.” Dunne grimaces as he recalls the phone calls he received
from Mayorkas in early 2001. “He explored with me the possibility of our office’s
lobbying for clemency on behalf of Carlos [Vignali], in exchange for Horacio [Vignali]
providing information related to some real estate fraud,” Dunne says. “I said
no. It was highly unusual for me to be contacted like that. I can’t speak to his
state of mind or motive. I do not know why he did what he did.”
Mayorkas, who told the committee he was first contacted by Congressman Becerra, claims he had no knowledge of the task-force index that showed reports on the elder Vignali. Had he known of DEA allegations, Mayorkas said in 2001, he would have stayed away. “An allegation is enough,” he told the committee. “The world consists of the caught and uncaught.” Reached for comment, he denies he was under any pressure from anyone else to act on the elder Vignali’s behalf. Other sources say Mayorkas received pressure from higher-ups in the Justice Department. When asked if he finds Mayorkas’ explanation to be credible, Dunne struggles to make eye contact. “If that’s what he says, I will take him at his word.”
Todd Jones, now a partner at a Minneapolis law firm says, “The real answers lie with the DEA and law enforcement in Los Angeles. Two Minneapolis task force officers show up in the big-time dope world of Los Angeles with no snitch network or street contacts. The dope game revolves around applying leverage to flip suspects. Our trail ended with C-Low. He wouldn’t cooperate with investigators. Draw your own conclusions. It’s a mystery to me what really went on behind the scenes.”
Equally a mystery to officials in Minneapolis is how the Times covered
Pardongate in 2001 — particularly in light of a DEA document containing statements
made by Dana Gold that implicated the elder Vignali and Torres in an alleged drug
conspiracy. The document was recovered in a 1999 search of Torres’ Glendale home,
and later obtained by Times reporter Richard Serrano. Adams and Wehr marvel
that Torres was in possession of such a highly classified document, which the
DEA wouldn’t even give to them. Dunne recalls Serrano visiting him in Minneapolis
in February 2001, a copy of the document in hand. “I thought, ‘This is going to
be a big deal.’ But it wasn’t. Why is that?”
Seated in his chambers on the 14th floor of the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis, Senior U.S. District Judge David Doty does little to hide his disapproval. Doty says the Vignali case left him more opinionated than any other in his 18 years on the federal bench. He has some choice words for lawyers, politicians and journalists in Los Angeles. “The whole thing stunk,” says Doty, an ex-Marine who keeps an unloaded .38 Special in a hollowed-out Bible on his credenza — a souvenir from another drug trafficker he once sentenced. “It had money and corruption and fraud written all over it.”
According to Doty, the prosecutors were furious over the Vignali clemency, and he was “less than sanguine” about it. “Maybe we’re a little self-righteous up here, but what the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles did was beyond the pale.” Asked if the elder Vignali could have had more going for him than money and charm, such as a deal with the feds based on information he might provide, the judge says, “That’s probably true. I’d just be speculating. But one plus one still equals two.” Doty recalls Serrano visiting him in early 2001. “I thought he was on to something,” Doty says. “Then all of a sudden the stories stopped. I see the Times losing circulation. And they wonder why. People are losing confidence in the media.” Reached at the Times’ Washington bureau, Serrano confirms he had obtained the DEA document and took it with him to Minneapolis. He says he was pulled off the Vignali story to do 9/11 coverage. “There’s more I would have liked to do. I can’t comment on what I didn’t write.”
These days, the name Vignali is simply not spoken in City Hall, at least
not publicly. Former Councilman Nick Pacheco, who is eyeing the 14th Council District
seat Villaraigosa took from him in 2003, says it is not by the elder Vignali’s
choice. “No one will take his money,” says Pacheco, a former prosecutor who received
contributions from Horacio Vignali in 1999 but declined to accept them in 2003.
Pacheco recalls he first met Vignali at a fund-raiser for Baca in the late 1990s.
He, like many others, had the impression Vignali was nothing more than a hard-working
businessman who cared about Latino politics. “No one was aware the father was
implicated in any drug thing,” says Pacheco, who has had no contact with the elder
Vignali since Pardongate. “If Becerra, Baca or Hernandez knew anything, they would
have warned me not to accept any money from him in my first campaign.” Pacheco
doesn’t think the Vignalis are relevant in local politics. “I think Horacio has
moved on. He’s retreated to a quiet family life.”
Even real estate brokers downtown have a blind spot where the Vignalis are concerned. Dave Stahl, a veteran broker with Metro Resources Inc., reels off the names of property owners in various parts of downtown, going block by block until he gets to parcels that Vignali has owned for years. Then he draws a blank. “I just don’t know,” he says. Mike Smith, a broker with Lee and Associates, identifies South Park as one of the hottest areas for residential development, freely naming the players and their projects. “I’m not going to talk about specific parcels,” he protests when asked about property owned by one of Vignali’s companies.
But not Victor Ceporius, a real estate broker who has known Vignali for 25 years. He and Vignali and Torres bought and sold industrial and commercial properties in the 1980s and 1990s. They went their separate ways years ago, Ceporius says. “Horacio was the auto-repair guy, George was the supermarket guy, and I was the real estate guy,” Ceporius says. “I met Horacio on a cold call, and he introduced me to George, who had been a customer at Horacio’s auto-body shop on Figueroa.”
Ceporius is a tall, amiable man with white hair who speaks with a slight lisp. “I was amazed when Horacio became a big shot with all his connections. Back in the day we were lucky if one of us knew a councilman.” According to Ceporius, the three of them did property deals in Thousand Oaks, Pico-Union, on Hope Street south of Olympic Boulevard and on Flower Street, a block from Staples Center. Their company was called Tovicep — Torres, Vignali and Ceporius. Ceporius would get a commission, unless he put up money as an investor.
Torres was the tough, street-smart member of the group, Ceporius says. “He was not as well-spoken as Horacio, but he gets stuff done. I was surprised at how successful he was. This guy was a worker.” Ceporius recalls a major supermarket chain trying to replicate Torres’ success by starting a Latino grocery store outside of Los Angeles. When the effort failed, Ceporius coaxed Torres to buy the property and start up his own grocery store. “I offered to do the deal for him and help him develop the property, but he wasn’t interested. I guess he has this mom-and-pop upbringing and likes to keep things simple. He could have been even larger in the grocery store business.” Though less active than Vignali in associating with politicians over the years, Torres contributed $1,000 to the Villaraigosa campaign in November 2004.
Ceporius has a different recollection of Torres’ warehouse than DEA informants, who depicted it as full of luxury cars and a casino — a heavily armed drug-trafficking stronghold. “Someone is painting with a broad brush there,” he says, laughing as he reads a copy of one of the DEA reports. “I’m sure the boys liked to gamble, but it wasn’t like they were running a casino.” Ceporius says he never suspected that drugs were involved. He acknowledges Torres’ taste for lavish vehicles. “George used to complain that people said he was a drug dealer. I remember saying, ‘Gee, George, I wonder why?’ But I guess it was a nouveau riche thing with him. Maybe part of the Latino car culture.”
Talk of DEA informants’ allegations that Torres and Vignali were laundering drug profits through their businesses and real estate dealings doesn’t faze Ceporius. He offers a couple of theories. “They’d have to be a lot smarter than I am, because I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to do that,” he says. “For starters, everything with property is traceable. There’s documentation. It’s not a cash-intensive business. Then again, these guys are smart guys. I don’t see why they would want to get involved with something so stupid as drugs.” Businessmen don’t concern themselves with the other person in a real estate transaction, Ceporius adds. “I don’t ask myself where a person’s money came from or whether they purchased a property with drug money. I ask myself, ‘Do I want to buy the property? Will they sell to me?’ That’s all. Real estate is real estate.”
One former business partner of Vignali claims in court papers that he had
a more unsettling experience. Carlos Siderman is the president of Property I.D.,
a land-research firm that investors use to evaluate industrial properties. Court
records show that he and Vignali formed the company as a joint venture in 1995,
and were co-owners of the building at 1001 Wilshire Boulevard until Vignali sold
back his interest to Siderman in 2000. Court records also contain an account of
a disturbing confrontation in 2000.
In a request for a restraining order filed on June 22, 2000, Siderman, a fellow Argentine, filed court declarations that during a business dispute in their conference room on June 21, 2000, Vignali became enraged and punched him in the ribs, forced him to the floor and threatened his life and that of his family. A month later, Siderman filed a civil complaint for damages. In court declarations in August 2000, he stated: “I declined to agree with Mr. Vignali regarding a specific business matter, at which point he became very agitated. He rose from his chair and began yelling profanities only inches from my face. He then proceeded to threaten my life and the lives and well-being of my family, yelling ‘I am going to kill you and your whole family. You don’t know who you are fucking with.’ I suggested that we end the meeting and consult our respective attorneys. Mr. Vignali responded by yelling, ‘I don’t need a lawyer. I’m going to solve it my way. I’ll just fucking kill you.’ ”
Siderman filed a preliminary complaint with the police and received emergency medical attention, court records show. Two of Siderman’s employees filed court declarations stating that they witnessed the elder Vignali standing over the fallen Siderman, fists clenched. They stated that the elder Vignali sometimes carried a gun. However, neither employee witnessed the alleged punch in the ribs or the alleged threats. Vignali filed court declarations stating that he suspected Siderman of bilking the company, and when he confronted him an argument ensued. Vignali stated that Siderman threw himself against the wall and feigned injury. He denied making any threats. Vignali also stated he has a license to carry a gun, which he does on rare occasions when he is carrying large amounts of cash related to his businesses. The elder Vignali then filed a counter-lawsuit for slander. The entire matter was settled out of court under a confidentiality agreement, according to attorneys for Siderman and Vignali. R. Jeffery Ward, an attorney for Vignali, says he believes Siderman filed a civil action to give him leverage in a pending business dispute. “It’s like a spouse anticipating divorce, usually the woman, who files a complaint that she’s been battered,” Ward says. Reached for comment, Siderman asked for a written request for an interview. He never responded to the request submitted by the Weekly.
Despite the falling out, Siderman and Vignali once had grand plans together. In 1994, before construction began for Staples Center, Siderman was pushing a plan to bring gambling to downtown Los Angeles, according to a story in the Times’ Sunday edition on September 11, 1994. The idea that the Convention Center needed a luxury hotel to attract more visitors was not new, yet the idea of a hotel-casino surfaced briefly before falling by the wayside. Public records indicate Vignali was president of a company called Convention Center Entertainment Complex. According to the Times story, he had hired Siderman, the president of City Midland Development Company, to lobby for changes in the law that would allow for a casino. Siderman proposed a three-phase project for a “mega-center of entertainment” on property owned by Vignali, the Times reported.
Experienced real estate developers and city officials now say the plan was never taken seriously. It encompassed 345,000 square feet of property bounded by Figueroa and Flower streets and Pico and Venice boulevards — some of which Horacio Vignali still owns. Then-councilmen Mike Hernandez and Richard Alatorre were in favor of the plan. Alatorre told the Times, “Gambling is a fact of life . . . People that want to gamble are going to gamble, so why not benefit from it?”
Vignali’s holdings in downtown paid off in other ways. In 1997, railroad,
media and sports-and-entertainment mogul Philip Anschutz broke ground on Staples
Center, after negotiating a long-term plan with the Community Redevelopment Agency
known as the Downtown Strategic Plan. Today the plan is in high gear as the Anschutz
Entertainment Group, known as AEG, and its subsidiaries L.A. Arena Land Company
and Flower Street Holdings map out the future of South Park. When completed, developers
say, the project will include a luxury hotel with 1,200 rooms and 100 luxury condos,
and a thriving residential, retail and business district that will attract homeowners
and up to 13.5 million visitors a year. To add to his vast portfolio, Anschutz
also has reserved the rights to the “Examiner” brand name for newspapers in 60
U.S. cities, according to the Atlantic Monthly, and is spending
$150 million to produce a film version of C.S. Lewis’ Christian parable The
Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, raising
his profile as an ideologically driven magnate in the style of Rupert Murdoch.
In Vignali, the CRA found a partner in the growth of South Park, buying land from him valued at $5 million for the Convention Center expansion in the late 1980s. Vignali purchased land to make way for parking lots to the north of the Convention Center and sold it to the CRA in 1998, tax-assessment records show. Property records also show Vignali or companies he is in business with owning contiguous parcels on Figueroa Street across from Staples, south of Pico, right along where the Blue Line Metro emerges from a tunnel and travels adjacent to the street — a key feature for the visitor-friendly sports-entertainment-retail district being built by Anschutz. A pair of Flower Street parcels backing up to the Figueroa Street properties belong to Vignali too, records show.
But talk to the new CRA general manager, David Riccitiello, and it is as if Horacio Vignali barely exists. “Vignali, hmm, how do you spell that again?” Riccitiello says when asked about the CRA’s dealings with South Park’s long-term resident. “I think he’s owned property south of Pico since 1985, but other than one tiny parcel we bought from him, I don’t recall dealing with him. I’ve never met the man.”
AEG Vice President of Communications Michael Roth says Vignali has brokered a deal for his company but declined to say where. “[Horacio] is a major property owner in South Park who we got to know while developing Staples Center and acquiring property in the area,” Roth says. “He approached us and offered to help us acquire some property next to land we already owned, based on a relationship he had with one of the owners. He helped broker a satisfactory deal and was compensated.” Roth declined to say how much AEG paid Vignali to broker the land deal. Roth uses a tiny flashlight pointer and a miniature architect’s model to discuss the various phases of the sports-and-entertainment district AEG is developing. “We’re projecting that by 2007 there will be 60,000 more people living downtown than now,” Roth says. He points to the Convention Center expansion and the adjacent areas that the CRA took by eminent domain and sold to Anschutz’s L.A. Arena Land Company and says the city is better off than it was seven years ago. “Sure, there was some displacement, but it was mostly drug dealers and other bad elements. Now downtown is getting a Ralph’s grocery store, and we’re thrilled. It’s a little isolated down here still, but it’s becoming a desirable neighborhood.”
Roth points to where a new movie theater will go, next to the proposed hotel, and a 7,000-seat hall much like the Shrine Auditorium. “There will be broadcast studios and a cooking institute run by Lawry’s steak house.” Across the street from Staples, along Figueroa, north of Pico, where now there are vacant lots owned by AEG, Roth points to replicas of what he says could be retail and office buildings or another hotel.
When asked if AEG could envision completing its sports-and-entertainment district without doing further land deals with Vignali, Roth declined to say. “I can’t talk about future plans because we haven’t identified any.” Asked if AEG was aware at the time the company did business with Vignali of drug trafficking and money laundering allegations that surfaced in 2002, Roth declined to comment.
Drive through downtown on the 110 Freeway and it is hard to disassociate
Horacio Vignali from the development of South Park. To the east of the freeway
are the parking lots and warehouses he owns or has owned, including land he has
already sold to the city, all within a stone’s throw of Staples Center. Most developers
say the same thing: The sky is the limit for this type of industrial property,
which is targeted for conversion to residential or retail space. Also, to the
west of the freeway, in Pico-Union, in a largely residential neighborhood with
small warehouses, he owns parcels on 12th Street and Pico Boulevard that are connected,
across from the school district police headquarters.
One person Vignali does business with who has ties to City Hall is a lawyer named Edwin Marzec, or Marzek, as his name is sometimes spelled on campaign-contribution reports. Marzec is a past president of the county Judicial Procedures Commission and a current vice-president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. He is the chair of the neighborhood council’s rules and elections committee. A former partner with Arter & Hadden who used to represent manufacturers of telephone-calling-card dispensers and makers of bus tokens, Marzec is a registered lobbyist with the city and the U.S. House of Representatives. He is married to investment adviser and bond broker Zelda Marzec. In 1998, Cardinal Mahony anointed Edwin Marzec into the prestigious order of the Knights Commanders and Dames of St. Gregory.
Since 1999, Marzec and his wife have given nearly $20,000 to candidates for city office and $25,000 in federal elections, records show. While it is unclear how long Marzec and Vignali have known each other, a $1,000 contribution from Vignali to the campaign of Senator Dianne Feinstein in 2000 lists his employer as Arter & Hadden, Marzec’s firm at the time. A member of the Downtown Neighborhood Council also recalls Vignali hosted a party in recent years at his property on Pico Boulevard that was arranged by Marzec. He was away on business in Central America and could not be reached.
The Secretary of State’s office lists Marzec as the manager of a company called South Park Properties LLC, also referred to as South Park LLC, which according to public records uses the same post-office box used by Vignali’s Morvis Corvis Corporation. Property records show Vignali and his wife as co-owners of property with South Park, and engaged in transactions with South Park or South Park Properties. Those transactions involve parcels south of Pico along Figueroa Street, a couple blocks caddy-corner from Staples Center. (County records also show South Park LLC sharing a separate address with a company called 607 South Park LLC, which owns the Park Plaza Hotel. John Forbess, agent for 607 South Park LLC says there must be some mistake: His company, which also owns the Standard Oil building at Sixth and Olympic, is not affiliated with Vignali. “I’ve never heard of him,” says Forbess, who has been a lawyer downtown for 30 years.)
Another Vignali associate is Luis Valenzuela, executive vice president of NAI Capital Commercial Real Estate Services, a politically connected real estate brokerage that has a consulting contract with the school district. Valenzuela is a street-savvy political insider who was born in Mexico and raised in East L.A., according to news reports. An active campaign contributor at the time, he told the Committee on Government Reform that he was present with Los Angeles attorney James Casso when Vignali was introduced to Hugh Rodham in 2001. Casso, son-in-law of former congressman Esteban Torres, who also lobbied for young Vignali’s clemency, refused to cooperate with the congressional investigation into Pardongate. He did not return calls for comment. Valenzuela, who according to the congressional committee report acted as an escrow agent for the $200,000 Vignali paid to Rodham, told the committee that he and Vignali are “like brothers.” Valenzuela spoke to the Weekly briefly about real estate matters, but at the mention of Horacio Vignali he cut short the conversation. He did not return further calls.
A section of the congressional committee report titled “The Message Sent by the Vignali Commutation” states, “There is no evidence that Carlos Vignali is reformed or that he has in any way changed his life since being convicted. He has never admitted his guilt, he has never cooperated with law enforcement, and he has never admitted that he did anything wrong.” By some recent accounts, the younger Vignali can be seen attending an occasional neighborhood council meeting, taking stock of economic development issues, listening but not talking. His family’s presence in South Park over the years makes him a native son in that part of town, observers say.
While few seem comfortable admitting to dealings with the Vignalis, there is a lack of remorse shown by many of the politicians who urged the White House to grant the younger Vignali clemency. There’s also a lack of willingness to explain why they did what they did. Villaraigosa, seemingly immunized from further scrutiny by the vicious Hahn attacks of 2001, would not agree to be interviewed for this story. Nor would Supervisor Molina, or Sheriff Baca, both of whom are up for re-election in the coming year. Baca has indicated that to him, the Vignali chapter in his book is closed.
Which places the Vignalis in the annals of Los Angeles as one of its more enigmatic families. They are part representatives of the American Dream, part reminder of the difficulty in discerning legitimate businesses from illegitimate ones, and part cautionary tale about the U.S. Justice Department — an example of how a family’s influence can just as easily be preserved as diminished under a cloud of suspicion.
For the prosecutors and cops in Minneapolis who are rankled that low-level street dealers are still doing time, while a rich kid went free and his father seems untouchable, a sense of injustice gnaws. Officer Gerry Wehr, bleary-eyed from working all night, offers a helpless smile as he trudges off to get some sleep. Officer Tony Adams, weary of a drug game in his hometown that is dwarfed by Los Angeles’, concludes, “Five years ago, I would have said no way cops could be involved in this thing, but now I say anything is possible.”
Gazing out his window high above the Twin Cities, U.S. District Judge David Doty proclaims, “You can say federal judges are arrogant, because we are, but compared to the people from Los Angeles who’ve come through here, we fade into the woodwork.”
And Hennepin County judge Denise Reilly, grateful to no longer be prosecuting
crime, marvels, “I was always impressed with Horacio Vignali’s foresight to buy
all that land around the Convention Center.”