A federal prosecutor has cranked up the heat on former President Clinton, launching a criminal investigation to determine if money played a role in the last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.
U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, in a brief statement issued Thursday, confirmed her office and the FBI "have opened an investigation to determine whether there have been any violations of federal law" in the pardons of Rich and his partner, Pincus Green. It did not elaborate.
White's probe is expected to examine bank and telephone records and other documents for evidence of illegal conduct, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.
"She is trying to determine if there was a transfer of money to buy the pardon," the source told The Associated Press on Wednesday, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
White, who was appointed to her post by Clinton in 1993, has said the pardon was granted without consultation with her office, which indicted Rich in 1983.
The move comes after Senate and House committees launched similar probes of the Rich pardon, one of 141 granted by Clinton on Jan. 20, his final day in office. With the federal investigation opening up, Rep. Dan Burton, head of the House committee, asked the Justice Department to delay his request to grant immunity from prosecution to Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich.
Critics have noted that Denise Rich contributed an estimated $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library Fund, more than $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and at least $109,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.
According to the source, the White investigation will try to determine if there was any link between the contributions and the Clinton decision. Under the U.S. Constitution, presidents have an absolute right to issue pardons that are not subject to review by any other government entity. The federal probe would focus instead on possible criminal wrongdoing stemming from the contributions.
In a statement issued through transition office spokeswoman Julia Payne late Wednesday, Clinton again denied any wrongdoing.
"As I have said repeatedly, I made the decision to pardon Marc Rich based on what I thought was the right thing to do," he said. "Any suggestion that improper factors, including fund raising for the (Democratic National Committee) or my library, had anything to do with the decision are absolutely false. I look forward to cooperating with any appropriate inquiry."
White's spokesman, Herb Haddad, said her office would have no comment on the report of an investigation. In Washington, Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker also had no comment on the report.
Rich, who fled to Switzerland in the 1980s, was wanted by the Justice Department on charges of evading more than $48 million in taxes, fraud and participating in illegal oil deals with Iran.
In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams said the White House initially failed to tell him during a midnight phone call that Rich was a fugitive.
"I was not told," Adams said. "I learned that from the FBI."
After discovering that Rich and his indicted partner were fugitives, Adams fired off a fax to the White House summarizing the facts of their criminal case. The White House then asked Adams to fax over the materials that he had gotten from the FBI.
The revelations prompted several Democrats to questions Clinton's decision to later pardon Rich. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the pardon "certainly raises the appearance of impropriety."
Rich's pardon was one of 177 total clemency actions Clinton handled Jan. 20. Thirty-two were not reviewed in advance by the Justice Department's pardon attorney, which is the usual - though neither legally nor constitutionally required - procedure.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the pardoning of fugitives "stands our criminal justice system on its head." And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she has "concerns not only about the Rich pardon but about a number of" others granted clemency.
Despite the Rich flap, officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and in the Clinton camp said there were no plans to return the Denise Rich contributions.
"There's been no discussion about it," Clinton adviser Harold Ickes said Wednesday.
Mrs. Clinton, through a spokesman, said she would have no comment on the reported probe and referred calls to her husband's transition office.
Denise Rich has refused to answer questions from the House committee, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination. The AP left a message on an answering machine of her spokesman seeking comment on the report of the White probe.
The chairman of a House committee said Wednesday he was told by the Justice Department it will be "at least one week" before officials there act on the panel's request to grant Denise Rich immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony to the panel.
The House committee also expects to subpoena records this week from two of Denise Rich's American banks; records from the Clinton library on all donations and pledges of $5,000 or more; and records from the DNC related to Denise Rich.
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