Top Clinton Aides Say They Opposed Rich Pardon

John Whitesides - Reuters - March 1, 2001

WASHINGTON - Three of former President Clinton's top aides told Congress on Thursday they argued against the last-minute pardon for billionaire Marc Rich, but believed Clinton made his decision based on the merits of the case.

Former chief of staff John Podesta, White House counsel Beth Nolan and close adviser Bruce Lindsey said the Rich pardon was discussed during at least two staff meetings in the chaotic final days of Clinton's presidency, including a "heated" session the day before it was granted.

"The staff informed the president that it was our view that the pardon should not be granted," Podesta told the House Government Reform Committee, which is investigating whether the pardon was linked to donations by Rich's ex-wife Denise.

Beth Dozoretz, the former finance chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, refused to testify before the committee, invoking her constitutional right against self-incrimination. Denise Rich also has declined to answer questions before the committee.

"Upon the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer that question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution," Dozoretz said when asked if she ever discussed donations with Clinton in connection with the Rich pardon.

Rich fled to Switzerland 17 years ago to avoid prosecution on racketeering, wire fraud, income tax evasion and illegal oil trading charges and received a pardon from Clinton on his last day in office on Jan. 20.

The committee, along with a Senate panel and federal criminal investigators, are looking into allegations Denise Rich's donations of more than $1 million to Democratic candidates and groups and $450,000 to the Clinton library might have played a role in the pardon.

Witnesses Say "No Wrongdoing"

"We never discussed any matters having to do with any of the things that have been alleged by his critics," Podesta said of discussions with Clinton about the Rich pardon. "There was no wrongdoing."

During a more than 10-hour hearing that stretched late into the night, all three aides said they argued against the pardon and did not believe Clinton would grant it. Podesta and Nolan said they thought the Rich pardon was dead after a meeting on Jan. 16, four days before the end of Clinton's term.

But a call on Jan. 19 from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in which he urged Clinton to consider the pardon, seemed to play a role in turning the tide. "It certainly seemed he was not going to grant it, and that Mr. Barak's phone call was significant," Nolan said.

Nolan said the pardon process became increasingly chaotic in Clinton's last days as president, with an avalanche of applications and appeals burying the counsel's office and Clinton insisting on considering as many pardons as possible.

"They were coming from everywhere," she said of pardons appeals that flowed in from Congress, movie stars, former officials and others.

Clinton waived all executive privilege claims so the three aides could testify freely after they were subpoenaed in the committee's widening investigation, which has grown to include the sentence commutations of a convicted swindler and a major cocaine dealer who paid some $400,000 to Hugh Rodham, Clinton's brother-in-law, to advance their clemency bids.

Rodham ultimately gave the money back after Clinton and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton complained.

Hugh Rodham Responds

In written answers to committee questions released on Thursday, Rodham said he did not contact either the president or Mrs. Clinton regarding the cases. He said he contacted Lindsey three times regarding one of the cases and an associate in the counsel's office twice on the other.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Henry Waxman of California, said Denise Rich was cooperating with a federal probe of the Rich pardon, and urged Dozoretz to do the same.

An February 2000 e-mail from Rich's attorney released by the committee said prosecutors offered to drop the racketeering charge -- a key component of the prosecution case -- and allow him to stay free on bail while they reviewed his case if he returned to the United States. His lawyers rejected the offer before winning him a pardon.

Rich lawyer Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel under Clinton, has maintained Rich deserved a pardon because the case against him was "fundamentally flawed," based in part on a misuse of federal racketeering statutes by a prosecution team headed in the early 1980s by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, now mayor of New York.

When it was apparent that prosecutors would not negotiate while Rich remained a fugitive, Avner Azulay, a close friend of Rich and executive director of the Rich Foundation in Israel, broached the idea in another e-mail of an "unconventional approach" -- the campaign for a pardon.

That e-mail also was sent in February 2000. Attorneys for Rich previously have said the quest for a pardon did not begin until October 2000.

Lewis Libby, who represented Rich off and on until early last year and is now chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, refused to endorse the pardon under intense questioning from Democrats. He said, however, that he did not think Rich was guilty of the charges brought against him.

New York state tax authorities said on Thursday they were suing Rich for income tax evasion and would seek $137 million owed on money Rich made in the 1980s while in control of two companies that admitted fraud involving illegal oil trading.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page