Supporter of Pardon for Fugitive Has Regrets

Alison Leigh Cowan - NY Times - March 24, 2001

Abraham H. Foxman, a prominent Jewish leader who was a pivotal figure in the behind-the-scenes effort to secure a pardon for the fugitive financier Marc Rich, said yesterday that he was wrong to have lobbied for Mr. Rich.

Mr. Foxman said evidence presented in recent Congressional hearings showed law enforcement officials were far less intransigent than Mr. Rich and his supporters let on. He also said that when he furnished Mr. Rich's aides with a letter of support on Dec. 7 he did not realize that Mr. Rich had renounced his United States citizenship.

In summoning reporters yesterday to the Manhattan headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League, which he heads, Mr. Foxman became the latest public official who lent support to the campaign to backtrack since President Bill Clinton issued the pardon on Jan. 20.

Mr. Foxman said he had resisted describing his role before yesterday, because he wanted to meet first with investigators on the House Government Reform Committee. That happened on Monday.

But hints of his backstage role emerged in e-mail messages released by Congress, embarrassing him with A.D.L. board members who did not think the lobbying was consistent with the league's mission to fight anti-Semitism.

Mr. Foxman disclosed yesterday that Mr. Rich's foundations had contributed $250,000 to projects that the A.D.L. has financed in the last 17 years. The biggest and most recent chunk, $100,000, was volunteered in the fall of 1999 and paid in early 2000, Mr. Foxman said. But he said those gifts were not material for an organization that raises $50 million a year and never affected anything he did for Mr. Rich.

Still, he said, "I began to question whether a person's good deeds should overshadow other aspects of his behavior."

Though he disputed the notion that he was central to the lobbying effort, Mr. Foxman acknowledged yesterday that the idea of seeking a pardon might have been his. As he explained, he had agreed to meet Avner Azulay, the director of Mr. Rich's foundation in Israel, in Paris in February 2000 to get acquainted.

Only a few months earlier, Mr. Azulay had called Mr. Foxman to introduce himself and mentioned that he would like to renew the level of support Mr. Rich's foundation once provided to A.D.L. projects. Mr. Foxman recalls Mr. Azulay adding that he would try "to make up for years we hadn't given." A note soon arrived notifying him that a $100,000 donation was coming.

In Paris, Mr. Azulay then asked Mr. Foxman for advice about Mr. Rich's long-standing legal problems. Mr. Foxman said he strongly suggested that Mr. Rich consider asking his former wife, the socialite Denise Rich, to use her influence in Washington to help Mr. Rich.

The two had barely spoken since their divorce. But Mr. Foxman also knew they had lost their middle child to leukemia, so he said he told Mr. Azulay, "Why don't you reach out to Denise Rich to see if she had changed her mind about Marc Rich, and if she had, to have her approach the president about a pardon."

He said he was "as surprised as I could be at how serious it was taken and how far it went."

In testimony before Congress, Mr. Rich's advisers have insisted that talk of a pardon only got serious in the fall, despite two e-mail messages that suggest indeed that the idea was floated as early as February or March of last year.

Mr. Foxman said he was introduced to Mr. Rich 16 years ago by a mutual friend who believed they were "landsmen," as Mr. Foxman put it. Mr. Foxman was born in a village that is now part of Belarus and he understood Mr. Rich was from a neighboring town.

When told later that Mr. Rich's own pardon petition stated that he was born in Belgium, the spokesman for the A.D.L., Myrna Shinbaum, said Mr. Foxman was flabbergasted because the two talked extensively about the supposed connection.

Mr. Foxman believes they dined together seven or eight times in the last 15 years, often when business took Mr. Foxman to Switzerland. "We had a good time speaking in Yiddish, his mother tongue," Mr. Foxman said. "We talked about cabbages and kings and Jewish life."

Mr. Foxman also said that Mr. Rich proved invaluable when it was Mr. Foxman who needed the favor. When Romania's leader Nicolae Ceausescu was killed, A.D.L. officials noticed an outburst in anti-Semitism there, but lacked contacts with the new government to address the problem. Mr. Foxman said he turned to Mr. Rich for help and was soon meeting with Petre Roman, the new prime minister, who quickly spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page