Isn't it rich?

Finally, Dan Burton gets a Clinton scandal that Democrats can't quite explain away, in the last-minute pardon of Marc Rich.

Published February 10, 2001 1:43AM (EST)

Of all the scandals over which Republican attack dogs have hounded President Clinton for the last eight years, the Marc Rich pardon stands out for a number of reasons: no half-naked women, no Hillary angle, no independent counsel. That, and the fact that the whole mess seemed to cry out for a little investigation from word one.

The fugitive financier was the most infamous recipient of the last-minute pardons Clinton issued during his final week in office. On Thursday, Indiana Republican and chronic Clinton pursuer Dan Burton opened a probe into why and how Rich got his 11th-hour pardon. The drama is unfolding ahead of schedule.

The investigation already has its first celebrity uncooperative witness, Rich's ex-wife and prolific Democratic benefactor Denise Rich, who sent word that she was invoking her Fifth Amendment privilege to keep her mouth shut. Burton, who blasted Rich for a $400,000 donation to the Clinton presidential library, promised to counter with a tongue-loosening grant of immunity as soon as he could.

But Denise Rich's alleged funny money wasn't the biggest sore point for the GOP. That distinction goes to the tale of woe that led Rich to seek a pardon in the first place.

In 1983, the fugitive financier and his business partner, Pincus Green, were indicted on 51 counts of fraud, racketeering and a host of other misdeeds connected with illegal oil trades with Iran during the early '80s. The Internal Revenue Service claimed that Rich shielded as much as $100 million in illegal profits from the hands of the tax fraud.

At the peak of the investigation, days before they were indicted, Rich and Green left the country for Switzerland. They renounced their American citizenship, eventually becoming dual citizens of Spain and Israel, and consequently avoided extradition. Since then, Rich has been suffering his exile in style, running what is now considered to be the largest commodities trading company in the world. In the meantime, his former wife has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Democratic Party causes, including campaigns for both Clintons, and donated some of the furniture items that the political pair took from the White House as a parting gift.

Former Clinton counsel Jack Quinn joined Rich's legal team in 1999, and later asked his former boss to pardon his new one. No one at the FBI, CIA, State Department, or any other government agency was asked to weigh in on the Rich matter. On Thursday Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder, who was grilled during Burton's afternoon hearing session, testified that he gave the pardon only cursory thought, because he believed it would never go through.

Holder fudged on whether he gave the pardon a no-confidence vote or a tepid thumbs up, but was forthcoming when asked if he would have recommended the pardon if he had had complete information. "Knowing what I know now, no."

Of course, Clinton went ahead and did it and, through spokespeople, continues to insist that everything was on the up and up, and that Rich's pardon was decided on the merits of his case.

On Thursday, Quinn had the unenviable task of trying to lift -- or at least mask -- the stench of scandal that now emanates from the whole affair. He testified that his client deserved mercy because the prosecution was unfair, misusing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act to indict Rich.

Rich was one of the first RICO targets whose case did not involve organized crime, Quinn noted, and the Justice Department has since banned the use of RICO in cases like Rich's.

"I was convinced that Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Weinberg, Mr. Auerbach and their colleagues had constructed a legal house of cards," Quinn said. "It was a misuse of RICO on top of misuse of RICO predicates and underlying it all, a tax and energy case with no merit. The case was flawed."

Quinn claimed he never anticipated that such a hullabaloo would follow what he saw as a correction of a miscarriage of justice. Quinn said that when an advocate believes in "the merits and the righteousness of [the] cause," he's bound to develop a blind spot for the criticism of others.

But Quinn had other blind spots. On Thursday, he testified that he wasn't sure whether Rich had been trading with U.S. enemies and international bad guys -- like Libya, Cuba and South Africa -- when American policy forbade it. (The Republicans on the panel were quite sure he did.) As recently as last week, Quinn incorrectly stated that Rich was still legally an American, which, if true, would have opened him up to millions of dollars of additional tax liability. In his testimony, Quinn explained that he never handled the citizenship part of the Rich case.

He was certain, however, that Rich was no fugitive, because technically Rich hadn't fled anything. The indictment came down after his client was snug in the notoriously extradition-shy country, and his failure to return didn't make him a bad fellow. And the steamer trunks full of subpoenaed documents en route to Switzerland that investigators happened to intercept in transit? That was no crime, just a misunderstanding.

"What I have been told is that those documents were going to Switzerland for the purpose of being reviewed for privilege by the lawyers," Quinn responded, to the snickers and incredulity of those in the hearing room. "That was their answer."

That answer satisfied no one, and Quinn's other statements were held in similarly low regard. Leading the sneering section from the witness table were Morris "Sandy" Weinberg Jr. and Martin Auerbach, the prosecutors who originally tried the Rich case. They greeted Quinn's assertion that their original case had been meritless with barely disguised contempt. Weinberg derided Rich and Green for trying to "buy their way out," and asked why Rich would act so guilty if he were truly an innocent man.

"If this case was so meritless, why didn't they come back?" he asked rhetorically. Auerbach said that Rich shouldn't be allowed to keep his "get out of jail free card" and come back to the country he defrauded.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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