Clinton Says Israel Influenced Pardon

Former president ‘bewildered’ by Rich controversy

NBC - February 16, 2001

Amid the firestorm over fugitive financier Marc Rich’s pardon, former President Clinton said Thursday in a conversation with CNBC’s Geraldo Rivera that Israel influenced him “profoundly” in granting the pardon. In his first extensive comments, Clinton said that he was “bewildered” by the controversy and that there was not a “shred of evidence that I did anything wrong.”

Clinton, in a phone discussion with the host of CNBC’s “Rivera Live,” said he was “blindsided” by the furor over the pardon for Rich, who faced tax evasion and other charges.

“I have no infrastructure to deal with this, no press person. I just wanted to go out there and do what past presidents have done, but the Republicans had other ideas for me,” said Clinton.

“There’s not a single, solitary shred of evidence that I did anything wrong or that his [Rich’s] money changed hands,” he said. “And there’s certainly no evidence that I took any of it.”

Clinton pointed out that Rich was once represented by lawyer Lewis Libby, now Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff.

Rich “had three big-time Republican lawyers, including [Vice President] Dick Cheney’s chief of staff,” he said. “Marc Rich himself is a Republican.”

Rivera told MSNBC the former president sounded “beleaguered” on the phone. “He is sincerely shocked by all of the noise and hubbub surrounding this. He had no idea that it would be this tidal wave and that he would find himself once again on the front pages of every newspaper defending himself against the charges of his political enemies,” said Rivera, a longtime friend of Clinton’s.

ISRAEL’S ROLE

During the interview, Clinton said campaign funding played no role in the pardon, but he added, “I’ll tell you what did influence me — Israel did influence me profoundly.”

It was unknown whether Clinton elaborated during the interview.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Rich has been a longtime supporter of Israel’s Labor Party, including acting Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

The Belgian-born Rich grew up in the United States, but his lawyers said he renounced his U.S. citizenship. Rich, who has lived in Switzerland since 1983, says he holds Israeli and Spanish citizenship, but Republican members of Congress have asked the State Department to investigate that claim. Rich was indicted in the United States on charges of evading more than $48 million in taxes, fraud and conducting illegal oil deals with Iran.

Over the past 20 years, Rich has contributed $70 million to $80 million to Israeli hospitals, museums and orchestras and to help settle immigrants, said Avner Azulay, head of the multimillion-dollar Rich Foundation in Tel Aviv.

Azulay, the former chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, said he believed Clinton pardoned Rich, in part, because of his role in helping Israel get Jews out of Ethiopia and Yemen.

Azulay said he helped collect the testimonials from prominent Israelis that played a role in obtaining the eleventh-hour pardon, now subject of congressional hearings and a federal probe. He wouldn’t say how many statements were collected, but he said Barak and Peres had spoken to Clinton about Rich.

Barak spokesman Gadi Baltiansky confirmed that the prime minister raised the subject in a recent conversation with Clinton. Baltiansky would not elaborate, and Peres declined to comment.

TRAIL OF E-MAILS

E-mails subpoenaed by Congress and now part of the public record reveal intensive behind-the-scenes efforts to engineer a pardon for Rich.

Barak’s name is mentioned repeatedly. In one e-mail, Azulay suggests asking the White House to delay making a decision until leading Israelis such as Barak and Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami “can make their appeals.”

An e-mail from Robert F. Fink, one of Rich’s lawyers, emphasizes the importance of high-level Israeli support. “So do not let up,” Fink wrote.

Azulay also asked the Rich team to keep the prime minister’s name out of the press. “It’s important to keep all politicians’ names out of the story. ... This is election time here and has a potential of a blowup,” Azulay wrote.

Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit said he recommended to Clinton that Rich be pardoned because the billionaire’s business ties helped Israel get Jews out of Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen — countries without diplomatic ties to Israel at the time.

In a Nov. 28 letter to Clinton, Shavit, who headed the Mossad from 1989 to 1996, wrote that he asked Rich for assistance in the search for missing soldiers and “help in the rescue and evacuation of Jews from enemy countries.”

“Israel and the Jewish people are grateful for these unselfish actions, which sometimes had the potential of jeopardizing his own personal interests and business relations,” the letter said.

MIDEAST TIES

Rich, 66, has never lived in Israel, but he has given to a series of charities, from funding a program for young Diaspora Jews studying at a Jewish seminary in the West Bank to a health program for Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.

In northern Israel, he built a home for autistic children. He gave millions of dollars to Israeli medical centers to research treatments for leukemia, the disease that took his daughter Gabrielle’s life in 1996, at age 27.

“He has helped Israel address its social problems and provide for its security needs,” Israeli Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg said in a letter to Clinton, included in the e-mail traffic.

Rich last visited Jerusalem in early January — before the pardon — and met with Barak and other leading Israeli politicians, according to the e-mails. He also mingled with young Diaspora Jews visiting Israel as part of the Birthright Israel program, to which he contributed $5 million. The program sends Jews to Israel, all expenses paid, to foster ties with the state.

IMMUNITY DEAL DELAYED

Meanwhile, sources told NBC News that House investigators seeking immunity for Denise Rich, Rich’s ex-wife, have agreed to wait at least a week while the federal prosecutor in Manhattan conducts a preliminary investigation of the pardon.

The House Government Reform Committee agreed to the delay out of concern that granting immunity to Denise Rich could interfere with the prosecutors’ investigation.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., wants immunity for Denise Rich to compel her testimony. She has refused to answer questions from the committee, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination.

The Justice Department has not yet decided whether to oppose immunity and will not do so until U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White’s office has determined whether to proceed with a full criminal investigation. That decision could come as early as next week.

White, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, and local FBI chief Barry Mawn confirmed Thursday that they are investigating the pardon of Rich, as well as that of his partner, Pincus Green.

Denise Rich, a songwriter, 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.

Rich’s spokesman has not returned calls seeking comment, but Rivera said he spoke to her by telephone Thursday.

“I spend half my time crying and half my time laughing,” she said, according to Rivera. “But that’s not so unusual for me — I’m such an emotional person.”

Days after the pardon, Rich said in a statement that it was “entirely appropriate” for her to be among those who petitioned Clinton. She said her political fund raising and charitable activities had nothing to do with the pardon granted to her ex-husband.

“The pardon given to Marc Rich will give him the opportunity to visit his daughter’s grave for the first time,” she said in the statement.

Prosecutors were expected to examine bank records, phone records and other documents to determine if any criminal activity was involved in the decision to pardon Rich.

A source familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press on Wednesday that White’s office “is trying to determine if there was a transfer of money to buy the pardon.”

PROSECUTORS WEREN’T CONSULTED

White, who was said to be furious over the pardon of Rich, said Clinton made his decision without consulting her office.

The New York Post reported this week that White, a Clinton appointee, will be asked to stay on the job for at least three more months by Bush’s team.

Rich’s indictment was filed when Rudolph Giuliani, who was White’s predecessor and is now the Republican mayor of New York, was running the U.S. attorney’s office.

On Thursday, Giuliani said an investigation of the pardon was warranted. “I certainly think the U.S. attorney has every right to look into this. ... No one seems to understand why this pardon was given,” he said.

Meanwhile, the House Government Reform Committee announced Thursday that it had scheduled a second hearing into the pardon.

Witnesses at the March 1 hearing are expected to include Clinton adviser Bruce Lindsey; former White House counsel Beth Nolan; Jack Quinn, an attorney for Marc Rich and himself a former White House counsel; and former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. Nolan and Lindsey, who have refused to appear before the committee, will be subpoenaed if necessary, committee staff members said.

Democrats on the committee have threatened to call Cheney’s chief of staff, Libby, who previously was Marc Rich’s attorney.

Further, committee lawyers also will write to Clinton asking him to wave all claims of executive privilege and ask Rich to waive claims of attorney-client privilege, the staff members said.

SENATE OPENS INQUIRY

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday opened its own inquiry into the Rich pardon.

The first witness called before the committee, Roger Adams, the government’s pardon attorney, testified that the White House didn’t inform him that Rich was a fugitive from justice, saying only that Rich and Green “had been living abroad for several years.”

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 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and participating in illegal oil deals with Iran.

Normally, the Justice Department requires that anyone asking for a pardon has finished serving the sentence. It contacts judges, prosecutors and victims before making a recommendation to the White House.

Rich’s Jan. 20 pardon was one of 141 by Clinton, who also commuted the sentences of 36 others that day. Of the 177 total clemency actions, 32 were not reviewed in advance by the Justice Department’s pardon attorney, which is the usual, though neither legally nor constitutionally required, procedure.

President Bush on Tuesday bluntly opposed congressional investigations of Clinton’s pardons. “My attitude is, it’s time to move on,” Bush told reporters, but he conceded that “Congress is going to do what it’s going to do.”


  • See Also: The Clemency Page