Democratic and Republican legislators yesterday said president Bill Clinton had used bad judgment when he decided to pardon Marc Rich, a fugitive billionaire commodities trader whose ex-wife had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to democratic causes and to Clinton's presidential library fund.
The lawyer for Rich and his associate Pincus Green, also came under fire for what congressmen described as misleading Clinton into what they deemed unjustified pardons.
Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983 and renounced his US citizenship to escape prosecution for fraud, income tax evasion, and illegal oil trading with Iran. Rich has since donated millions to charity, including to Jewish and Israeli causes, and claims to have Israeli and Spanish citizenship.
Clinton pardoned Rich in the last hours of his presidency on the basis of a plea prepared by lawyer Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel.
Congressman Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, which convened yesterday's hearing to investigate whether there had been wrongdoing in granting the pardon, said Clinton had exercised "incredibly bad judgment."
Committee chairman Dan Burton expressed regret that Clinton had not consulted with intelligence agencies before granting the pardon and relied on the information provided to him by Quinn. Quinn said he had acted as an advocate for his client and was not responsible for making sure Clinton had all sides of the story.
"The president should have taken an hour to get a briefing. Twenty minutes would have been enough," Burton said, adding that he had asked intelligence agencies to declassify information related to the case. Congress does not have the power to reverse pardons, which are an absolute presidential power.
Members of the committee were probing allegations that Clinton may have been influenced by campaign contributions by Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, including an enormous but undisclosed donation to his presidential library fund. But Denise Rich, who would have been a key witness, refused to answer written questions submitted by Burton, citing the Fifth Amendment.
Congressmen criticized Quinn for passing off thank-you letters to Rich for contributions he made as letters of endorsement for a presidential pardon. Quinn apologized that some of the writers were not told in advance that their letters would be used for a pardon application. But Quinn said he did not know that was happening at the time.
In 1983, Rich was indicted on more than 50 counts of wire fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, and violating the Iranian oil embargo, and was accused of evading $48 million in taxes - the largest tax fraud case in US history.
He faced up to 300 years in jail if convicted on all counts but fled the country to avoid prosecution. Rich's aides were found smuggling subpoenaed documents out of the country, and Rich paid millions in fines for refusing to turn over evidence.
Etgar Lefkowitz adds from Jerusalem:
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert confirmed to The Jerusalem Post last night that he had written to Clinton urging him to pardon Rich. "I wrote to Clinton because Rich was a great friend of Jerusalem who donated $20 million to the city over the past 18 years," Olmert said.
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