“Your Honor, when my kids were young, I was familiar with that Sesame Street character Big Bird and a song he used to sing about how everybody makes mistakes — big people, small people, as a matter of fact, law people,” defense attorney John Wing explained to federal District Judge Kevin Duffy. “Harvey Weinig made some business mistakes and he is here today facing the most important judicial decision in his life.”
So began the March 22, 1996 hearing at Manhattan’s U.S. courthouse where New York lawyer Harvey Weinig would learn the price he would pay for illegally helping to launder $19 million in cash for the Cali cocaine cartel and participating in the kidnapping of someone who swindled one of his co-conspirators. That price was discounted last January 20 when former president Bill Clinton chopped five years and six months from Weinig’s 11-year, three-month sentence.
Documents furnished to me by the office of Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and other papers at the U.S. courthouse detail yet another controversial Clinton clemency.
Weinig and another attorney named Robert Hirsch launched a law partnership on March 19, 1993. That October, they decided to help a client named Peter Tomas recover $260,000 that a courier for Tomas’s business had stored at the Sands Hotel in Puerto Rico. Ostensibly, this money was generated by Tomas’s cash sales of computers, electronic gear, and beauty aids. The attorneys tapped Richard Spence, a former client of Weinig’s who he described as “a street-smart retired fireman with a long abiding desire to do investigative work.”
Spence’s trip proved fruitless, but Hirsch suggested that he begin managing Tomas’s money transfers within the U.S. To that end, Weinig and Hirsch incorporated a company for Spence called Transglobal Import Export Trading Company, Inc. Between December 1993 and September 1994, Tomas regularly called Spence who arranged for bundles of cash to be collected, deposited in Transglobal’s account, then wired “to European and various off-shore accounts,” according to a March 21, 1996 pre-sentencing letter from Mary Jo White to Judge Duffy. Weinig also participated in these wire transfers.
“As time went on,” Weinig admitted in court, “I deliberately ignored obvious indications that these monies were, in fact, the proceeds of illicit drug transactions, and eventually I was fully aware of this fact.” Among the “many objective indicia” he overlooked, Weinig cites the receipt of “often small donations of cash in plastic bags,” as well as “the highly unconventional locations” from which money was collected, namely, “hotel rooms, street corners and empty cars in parking lots…”
Watching this cash pour through their hands, Weinig, Hirsch, and Spence soon developed sticky fingers. They stole $2.4 million from their money-laundering clients. Weinig felt no remorse about this dishonor among thieves.
“We’re dealing with people who are total a**holes, who are out of control, who are scumbag, lying cheats,” Weinig told Hirsch in October 1994. “And I am gonna be in this for the long haul? F*** ‘em! F*** ‘em! I’m taking a million dollars and let’s, let’s see you get it from me…This is not dealing with normal Americans. This is dealing with guys I wouldn’t take a telephone call from.”
Adding to the layers of deceit, Hirsch already had begun cooperating with the FBI and was capturing their conversations on tape.
Weinig’s notoriety deepened after a man named James Clooney cheated Richard Spence out of $237,000 by tricking him into investing in an insolvent company. Clooney could not return Spence’s money, although he had paintings and real estate that might help Spence recover some of his losses.
Between November 9 and 13, 1994, while Weinig was abroad, Spence leaned on Clooney to recoup his investment. Specifically, he had him kidnapped “to compel him to return the money that he had wrongfully taken,” as Weinig put it.
On November 15, 1994, Weinig and Hirsch discussed this situation.
“He seized a person,” Weinig said of Spence’s abduction of James Clooney, adding later: “he’ll be released as soon as his family produces money…”
Hirsch replied: “Wait a minute. Hold it, hold it. Dick Spence is holding someone hostage and you’re sitting here?…He’s holding a person and you really don’t see any problem with that?”
After Hirsch suggested that Clooney might ring the cops, Weinig said, “Well, he’s not in a position to call the Police at this point, right?” Weinig later tried to justify this crime. “You know he’s kidnapping someone who owes him money here,” Weinig told his partner. “It’s not drug money, it’s money,” Weinig added. “He’s lost some good money.”
The next day, Clooney’s captors released him with the proviso that he surrender both artwork and a home mortgage to settle his debt to Spence and thus fully regain his freedom. Weinig volunteered his office as a place to pay the ransom, then left the premises before Clooney walked in with the loot.
“I instructed two of the lawyers in my office to prepare the necessary documentation and meet with Mr. Clooney when he arrived at the office,” Weinig told Judge Duffy. “I did not report to any law enforcement authority or court that Mr. Clooney had been seized and intimidated by Spence’s agents in an effort to compel him to pay his debt to Spence.”
In her aforementioned letter to Judge Duffy, U.S. Attorney White described Weinig in withering terms. “The fundamental fact is that Mr. Weinig engaged in the laundering of drug money not as a result of financial hardship or need, but as a result of unmitigated, unrelenting greed and arrogance.” Regarding Weinig’s role in Clooney’s kidnapping, she wrote: “Under any standard, Weinig’s conduct — particularly as a lawyer — was chilling.”
Judge Duffy agreed, asking the defendant, “What would you have done, Mr. Weinig, if your son Jacob had been kidnapped and some lawyer knew about it, and knew he could get him out of there, and didn’t do anything?” The judge was bothered by the “very flip, matter of fact,” manner in which Weinig and Hirsch discussed Clooney’s seizure. “You couldn’t care less, but if it had been your son, you would have cared more.”
Judge Duffy remanded Weinig to “the custody of the Attorney General for a period of 135 months.” However, Clinton’s commutation sliced 66 months from Weinig’s term. Why did Clinton stick up for this character? Perhaps to stick it to prosecutors.
As Newsweek’s February 26 issue reports, top Clinton aides say he focused on pardons and commutations last month “with a full head of anger at the prosecutors who’d made his own life miserable for so many years.” He also “resolved to send a message to prosecutors and independent counsels,” in part by pardoning more than a dozen individuals who never even requested clemency. Clinton told staffers to prepare pardons for at least six people convicted by independent counsel Donald Smaltz who unsuccessfully prosecuted corruption charges against Mike Espy, Clinton’s former agriculture secretary. The man who got Espy acquitted was attorney Reid Weingarten. As luck would have it, Weingarten also handled the clemency case of none other than Harvey Weinig.
Convicted money launderer and kidnapping conspirator Harvey Weinig will be freed from New Jersey’s Fort Dix Prison on April 16 — just as millions of law-abiding Americans race to file their federal tax returns.