Rich pardon gets more scrutiny

A Senate hearing into Bill Clinton's final moves looks like good news for him -- until a U.S. attorney launches her own probe.

Published February 15, 2001 11:43PM (EST)

During a Tuesday night interview on Air Force One, asked whether Republicans should further investigate former President Clinton's actions in the twilight of his administration, President Bush responded with a firm "no."

"It's time to move on," Bush said.

And that answer hung over the hearing held Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee to probe "President Clinton's Eleventh Hour Pardons," the snappy title that Republicans thought up for the event. Though the hearing was nominally aimed at all 47 of the Clinton pardons that didn't go through the typical Justice Department vetting, it was truly aimed at the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Had the day ended with the hearing, in fact, it would have counted as a win for both Clinton and Rich. But as the close of the business day approached, the U.S. attorney in New York, Mary Jo White, announced she was opening a criminal investigation into the pardon, looking into whether it was a quid pro quo -- money given on Rich's behalf for his freedom.

Rich is the millionaire commodities trader who fled the country with business partner Pincus Green in 1983, days before prosecutors indicted the duo on 51 charges, including tax evasion and racketeering. Rich eluded extradition by renouncing his American citizenship, and has grown even wealthier by building up his business in Switzerland. In the intervening years, Denise Rich, the fugitive financier's former wife, became a big Democratic donor, giving more than $1 million to the Democratic National Committee and various other party candidates, including the president and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In his last hours in the White House, Clinton pardoned Rich without consulting the prosecutors who had nabbed him back in 1983, without the firm support of the Justice Department, and apparently without checking with other federal agencies, like the CIA and the FBI, which would have likely red-flagged Rich.

One factor, perhaps, of the Rich pardon was the involvement of former White House counsel Jack Quinn, who left the Clinton administration in 1997 and joined the Rich legal team in 1999. Another potentially influential factor was Denise Rich's money. In addition to the hundreds of thousands she had given to the Democrats, she gave $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library, and gave the Clintons some of the last-minute gifts that earned them more trouble with their critics.

Those facts have recently reinvigorated Clinton foes for this battle. Last week, the Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee, led by perpetual Clinton antagonist Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., went after the Rich pardon with real gusto, raking Quinn and former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder over the coals, and spreading a wide subpoena net for Clinton's donors and allies.

But Bush seemed to deflate the balloon for Republican senators. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, set the tone with a stern but academic opening statement. "Our focus at today's hearing will be process," he said, and soon afterward he left the hearing altogether to conduct other business in the Senate. Departing with him was Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democratic member of the panel. The GOP members filtered in and out of the proceedings, and most of the Democrats left right after making their opening statements.

That left the temporary chairmanship to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the designated Don Quixote of the Rich pardon case, who in the last week called for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to review presidential pardons, and suggested that Clinton could somehow be impeached even though he has already left office. But today's proceedings carried little gravitas.

The witnesses didn't raise the drama quotient much either. Absent were the two Rich prosecutors, Morris "Sandy" Weinberg Jr. and Martin Auerbach, who so enlivened the House hearing. Instead, the morning session witnesses were House holdover Holder and Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams, who testified that he learned about the Rich pardon via a midnight call on Clinton's last day in office. Adams said the timing and the facts of the case concerned him from the beginning. In particular, he was worried because the White House counsel had expressed doubts that much background information would be available about Rich or Green because "they had been living abroad for several years."

Adams, however, refused to speculate about Clinton's motives or the possibility that anything shady was afoot. Rep. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis., asked Adams: "What is your opinion? You know, we're interested in your opinion." But the strongest definitive statement Adams was prepared to make was that the Rich pardon "was not handled in anything approaching the normal way." He would not go any further.

And Holder, who has become the GOP's favorite Justice Department whipping boy since Janet Reno left town, was a lot more sure-footed in his responses this week, and ventured into playful banter with his questioners. When Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., asked Holder whether Quinn had really "run the pardon by" the Justice Department, Holder shot back, "Running it by justice is probably a good description of what happened."

Quinn, who had floundered in his appearance before the House Government Reform Committee, also seemed more composed Wednesday. He repeated his criticism of the unjustness of the laws used to prosecute Rich in the first place. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO, is typically used to prosecute organized crime figures, and the Justice Department no longer pursues RICO charges in cases like Rich's.

The grand anticlimax left Democrats free for some moralizing, as each roundly condemned the Rich pardon, but advised the Republicans to heed Bush's warnings. "I will not defend the pardon of Marc Rich," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who also said Clinton's action "certainly raises the appearance of impropriety."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who turned out to be Quinn's most tenacious questioner, piled on to the anti-Rich bandwagon. Still she encouraged Republican senators not to overreact and to keep Clinton's misstep in perspective, given the "colorful history of pardons," like former President Ford's pardon of Nixon, Carter's pardon of Vietnam draft dodgers and former President Bush's pardon of figures in the Iran-Contra affair.

In the end, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, outlined the hearing's epitaph in his opening remarks. "The pardoning of fugitives stands our criminal justice system on its head," he said, but added, "There's a whole lot of nothing we can do about it."

U.S. Attorney White, on the other hand, seems determined to do something about it. And if Wednesday seemed to get brighter for the former president as the hearings went on, it got a lot gloomier as the day closed.

By Alicia Montgomery

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

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

Related Topics ------------------------------------------