An Indefensible Pardon

NY Times - January 24, 2001

Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, the shadowy commodities trader who fled to Switzerland in 1983 to avoid American justice, was a shocking abuse of presidential power and a reminder of why George W. Bush's vow to restore integrity to the Oval Office resonates with millions of Americans who otherwise disagree with the new president's politics.

Unchecked by any other branch of government, the president's authority under the Constitution to pardon anyone charged with federal crimes is meant to be exercised with great restraint to correct an injustice or to further some societal good. Bestowing undeserved beneficence on a fugitive accused of evading $48 million in taxes and illegally trading with Iran in oil during the hostage crisis is hardly what the Constitution's framers had in mind.

Speaking from his new outpost in Chappaqua, N.Y., Mr. Clinton has said he used his pardons to restore rights to individuals who had "paid in full," and were "out long enough after their sentence to show they're good citizens." That description may fit some of the other recipients on his final pardon list. But it surely does not describe Mr. Rich or his former partner, Pincus Green, both of whom fled the country to escape the judicial process. There is a huge difference between pardoning someone who has already paid all or part of his debt to society and pardoning someone who has avoided adjudication.

We are unimpressed by Mr. Clinton's assertion that Mr. Rich's attorney, Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, made "a very compelling case" for a pardon. Mr. Quinn, after all, will presumably be paid well for using his White House connections. True, Mr. Rich's application also had the support of Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, but that may be due to the vast extent of Mr. Rich's charitable giving in his country.

Mr. Clinton was fully aware that pardoning Mr. Rich, the ex-husband of Denise Rich, a prominent fund-raiser for the Clintons and the Democratic Party, would carry a distinct taint and invite irate protests from federal prosecutors like Mary Jo White in Manhattan. That is probably why he kept it a secret that he was considering a pardon, bypassing the normal process in which the Justice Department vets pardon applications and submits them to the president with a recommendation. Small wonder that Ms. White and other current and former law enforcement officials are said to be livid. Mr. Clinton's irresponsible use of his pardoning authority has undermined the pursuit of justice.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page