Pardon Me, This Is Not Justice

Joan Ryan - San Francisco Chronicle - January 26, 2001

JUSTICE ISN'T blind. We know this. The innocent sometimes are jailed, the guilty sometimes go free. But we like to believe that, even when the system fails, at least there is a genuine attempt at justice.

But now we're learning the outrageous details of one of the 140 pardons Bill Clinton granted in the final hours of his presidency.

Marc Rich is a billionaire who made much of his money in oil. When Iran was holding 68 Americans hostage, Rich bought more than $200 million worth of Iranian oil, defying strict trade sanctions against Iran. He also is said to have evaded more than $48 million in taxes through sham oil transactions.

In 1983, when Rich was charged with 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and illegal trading with Iran, he caught the first Lear jet to Switzerland. He has been splitting his time ever since between his chalet in Switzerland and his lavish estate in Marbella, Spain.

He renounced his U.S. citizenship in the 1980s, which set him free from major tax liabilities, and reportedly now has Spanish and Israeli passports. Yet this fugitive still managed to make money off the United States. In his first six years of exile, Rich's company, Richco Grain, took in more than $65 million in federal subsidies on grain deals before the Department of Agriculture suspended the company from the program.

Yet he shows up on the list of 140 Clinton pardons. Here's why.

His ex-wife, Denise Rich, wrote a letter to Clinton on his behalf. Denise Rich just happens to have donated more than $1 million to the Democrats. She also gave the Clintons two coffee tables and two chairs worth more than $7,000 to help furnish their two new homes.

Rich also had other help. He hired the law firms of Quinn Gillespie & Associates and Arnold & Porter to plead his case to Clinton. Attorney Jack Quinn had been chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore and a Clinton White House counsel, and Arnold & Porter has represented the Clinton legal defense fund since its creation in 1998.

The lawyers went directly to Clinton with their plea for pardon, bypassing the Justice Department. In virtually all cases, the Justice Department reviews the pardon petitions and then makes recommendations to the president. With Rich, the Justice Department didn't find out about the application until three days before Clinton was to leave office and conveyed to the president that Rich didn't qualify. Pardons are meant to correct injustices or perform a civic good. But around midnight of the night before the inauguration, Clinton approved the pardon.

"I've seen political situations that stink to high heaven, and this stinks more than most," a former IRS commissioner told the Los Angeles Times.

Rich still could face a civil case and pay fines and back taxes. But he is free to come and go as he pleases without fear of criminal prosecution.

"Here's a man who never accepted responsibility for his actions, who fled the United States, fled a criminal trial and hid out in a foreign country," former Securities and Exchange Commission Commissioner Rick Roberts told a reporter. "Unlike Michael Milken, Mr. Rich did not own up to what he had done. Yet he got a pardon and Mr. Milken did not. I don't get it."

I can't say I'm surprised by Clinton's indefensible decision. I've had eight years to see he is, at heart, the quintessential political animal. So why do I still feel so disappointed?

  • See Also: The Clemency Page